Google is poised to stumble into Kansas Citys racial past, entangled in the historic boundary between black and white that is Troost Avenue.
By MARY SANCHEZ
The Kansas City Star
Sept. 10 is the day of reckoning. Thats the day after Googles deadline for people to pre-register for its ultra-fast Internet service.
Predictions of a backlash that Google neither fathomed nor intended are being voiced this week in community meetings with company representatives.
The collateral damage for Google is going to be devastating, said Kansas City school board member Joseph Jackson.
More positively, the fears are accompanied by strategies and commitments to stave off what some see as inevitable.
Kansas City is being watched, said Myron Moore, who helped organize the meeting for area ministers and Google. Lets all come together.
The maps tell the story. The demarcation line of Troost is stark.
Areas shaded green, with enough pre-registrations to be wired with the new service, lie west of Troost. Areas to the East remain yellow and are not meeting goals set by Google.
Not enough pre-registrations could mean there wont be wiring to those neighborhoods schools, community centers, police stations, libraries a range of public buildings that Google promised free access if goals were met.
Few schools east of Troost have hit the percentage of pre-registrations of surrounding homeowners that Google deemed necessary to trigger the free hookups. Low-income areas of Kansas City, Kan., also are struggling.
What is feared is a public backlash, with people east of Troost believing their neighborhoods were left out.
That Troost line needs to be obliterated by Sept. 10, said DeWayne Bright, a site coordinator with Local Investment Commission, or LINC, Caring Communities. Bright notes that the digital divide in low-income areas is massive. We cant let our kids take this hit. Their schools already lack accreditation. They dont need this telling them you are less than everybody else.
Whats missing in some neighborhoods is an understanding of the value Google Fiber will bring to children in the urban core. But its a message people will value if it is explained to them, Bright and others said. The initial $10 to sign up is not the barrier. Consider the view from Google Earth, Jackson said. You see lots of rooftops.
If you go door-to-door, you see vacant houses.
Vacant homes will never produce the paying customers Google needs.
When you are a community that has been promised so much and never received it, like the East Side, this could be a public relations nightmare for Google, said April Roy, manager of the Bluford branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
The dilemma is introducing new phrasings into the rollout of Google Fiber.
There is manufactured green and true green.
True green is where people are likely to become paying customers.
Manufactured green is where people have gone door-to-door and solicited signups for service, picking up the $10 tab. For instance, Friends of the Kansas City Public Library donated the money hoping to qualify the Bluford and Southeast branches for access.
Any means necessary might work, for now.
Repeatedly, community leaders are asking for assurance that Google wont back out of providing the free hookups for such libraries and schools if the paying customers never materialize.
Google community liaison Rachel Hack assured a group of about 75 ministers on Tuesday that the tech giant is committed to providing the access wherever the pre-registrations are met even if those areas later did not produce paid subscriptions.
Yes, so long as the fiberhood met their goal, even if they dont convert to subscriptions, Hack said.
But the murmur in the crowd was tangible as Hack used the phrase at this point. Some heard that as a qualifier.
Unfortunately, this is the level of distrust that Google faces.
Clearly, the argument can be made that Google should have realized the risk of tripping into racial and socioeconomic tensions that have festered for generations. And the company should have been more cognizant that a business plan of sign-ups that would garner success in suburban areas might not fair as well elsewhere.
Bright is among those trying to persuade Google to try a new approach: Wire the schools first.
Students would become like little ambassadors taking the word, and their desire for the cutting edge technology, back to their more hesitant parents and grandparents.
But Google worker Phyllis Faulkner-Johnson said that is not logistically feasible. Googles plan is based on large numbers of customers in an area, not a lone site.
The Social Media Club of Kansas City, another group working diligently, reports that as of Wednesday morning 4,089 more pre-registrations are necessary in Missouri and 1,749 in Kansas City, Kan., to turn all neighborhoods green.
Heres what makes that so hard.
Many people are not homeowners, but renters. Some say they need to reach the landlord for permission to have the home wired with Google Fiber. But the landlord is often someone in another state and difficult to contact.
Another barrier is apartment buildings. Jackson has been shooed away, told that another company has a contract there. In other areas of the city, Google has worked to get access to apartment buildings, gaining prior permission from management firms.
If only keeps creeping into the conversation
If only Google had hired local high school students to help push the possibilities of Google fiber in their schools and neighborhoods.
If only Google hadnt put its office space at State Line and Westport Road, not very accessible for many east of Troost who depend on bus service.
If only Google had anticipated the many elderly people east of Troost who are bound to bundled service providers now and hesitate to sign up for anything new that doesnt include a land line phone.
And the big one: If only Google had realized just how quickly the racial wounds associated with Troost as a division between black and white people can boil up.
If Google runs afoul here, we all lose.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.