The bad news about Google Fiber coming to seven cities in the Triangle is that the high-speed Internet service won't be installed in your neighborhood by the next season of House of Cards.
The good news is that Google Fiber says it will seek out traditionally underserved communities—low-income, minority, non-English speaking areas, where some residents don't have home Internet at all.
About 60 million people in the U.S. don't have Internet at home, according to the Pew Research Center. In cities, that number is 1 in 4. For some, a computer and a connection are too expensive; others say they don't need it—the Internet has no place in their lives.
That might change, hinging on Google's expansion plans, along with a pending decision by the FCC, that could give more people cheaper access to the Internet.
"Affordable connectivity, that's the piece we can address," says Erica Swanson, Google's head of Community Impact Programs.
Neighborhoods are expected to advocate for themselves, telling Google via email and online sign-up petitions that the demand exists for a "Fiberhood." (See related story, page 16). But that strategy could exclude neighborhoods with low connectivity—East Durham, Southeast Raleigh, and the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill, for example.
To overcome that digital divide, Swanson says Google will conduct extensive outreach into those areas: door hangers, direct mail, advertising and events. "It's a hyper localized approach," Swanson says, adding that the company will also partner with nonprofits and city departments. "It gets neighbors talking to neighbors about why the Internet matters."
In addition, Swanson says libraries and community centers will also get free Gigabit speed.
Update: Google has added a clarification: "While we may support or fund programs in libraries, the focus of our community connections program in our Fiber cities will be community organizations and nonprofits."
Granted, it's sage business practice for Google to attract more customers, even by offering them virtually free service (albeit the cheap version has broadband, not Fiber speed). At some point, those customers could choose to upgrade to Fiber.
In Kansas City, the first city where Google unveiled its Gigabit-speed service, a third of customers getting the Internet for the first time have Google Fiber, Swanson says. (Alas, they'll never know the joys of watching the digital beach ball as a sputtering web page loads.)
Nonethless, Google Fiber's digital inclusion is an improvement over that of the competition, such as Time Warner, AT&T and Embarq. As the INDY reported in 2009, Embarq refused to provide high-speed service to parts of Chatham County, even with high demand; the company said it was too expensive.
"Existing providers build where ever they want. Customers don't have a choice," says Chris Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute on Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis. The group advocates for cities to build their own networks, which also increases accountability and transparency.
Coincidentally, Google's announcement about its expansion into the Triangle comes at a pivotal time, particularly for North Carolina. A bit of background: In the mid-2000s, the lack of genuine competition in Internet Service Providers, and the dearth of service, prompted the towns of Wilson and Salisbury to build their own fiber networks and treat them as public utilities. (See story, page 16)
Fearing the competition, in 2011, the telecom companies lobbied state lawmakers—mostly Republicans but a few Democrats as well—to craft legislation that prohibited municipalities from building their own networks. The N.C. League of Municipalities objected, but to no avail. Wilson and Salisbury were grandfathered, although they cannot expand their services.
Checkmate, the telecom companies said.
Now Google has overturned the competitors' chessboard. And North Carolina's anti-municipal broadband law could eventually be repealed in North Carolina, pending a decision by the FCC later this month.
The FCC is required to expedite the nationwide roll-out of high-speed Internet access. As part of that mission, on Feb. 26, the FCC is expected to rule on whether laws in North Carolina and other states where municipal broadband is banned, obstructs that expansion.
Wilson and Chattanooga, Tennessee, petitioned the FCC saying the anti-muni laws, as they're known, prohibit competition and establish "barriers to access," Mitchell explains.
As part of its ruling the FCC could decide that the Internet should be treated as a utility, like water, electricity and sewer. High-speed Internet, advocates say, is a necessary part of civic life. It's how people find jobs, start businesses, get an education and interact with their government (and, sure, watch LOL cats). President Obama supports this change, as do Google and Amazon. The traditional telecom companies, predictably, oppose it.
The N.C. League of Municipalities also sent a letter of support to the FCC.
"The Internet should be no different than any other infrastructure," says Scott Mooneyham, the League's advocacy communications strategist. "It's attractive to businesses to have broadband."
If the FCC does rule favorably for cities and for treating the Internet as a utility, it's almost certain that the traditional telecom companies will appeal in federal court, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet Google seems unfazed about cities building their own networks; the company could actually make money off it. Mitchell says that in some areas, Google has offered to install an extra conduit when it builds the network, which it could then lease to a city. That could also save the city money in laying its own lines.
"Google could be more vicious than it is," Mitchell says. "They are doing things that benefit communities. But we don't know what will happen in five years. We used to like the cable companies, too."
Lisa Sorg is editor of the INDY. Reach her at email@example.com and on Twitter at @lisasorg.