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Editor’s note: Google Fiber’s Rachel Merlo is the sister of The Beacon’s audience manager, Jennifer Hack Wolf. Wolf was not involved in reporting or editing this story.

About 10 years after Kansas City, Kansas, was announced as the first city to receive Google Fiber, residents in the metro area now have access to the fastest internet speeds in the country.

Earlier this month, Google Fiber announced the arrival of its 2-gigabit service. The upgraded service is available in all neighborhoods that currently have access to Google Fiber’s services. In addition to Kansas City, Google Fiber has introduced its 2-gigabit service in Charlotte, North Carolina; Austin; Atlanta; and Irvine, California, among other cities. The upgrade costs $100/month, compared to the 1-gigabit service at $70/month.

The announcement comes after a year where many daily activities — attending school, visiting the doctor, going to work — moved online during the pandemic. 

“This is partly what offering a 2-gig product allows us to do, is to further enable those people who have increased their demands and what they want to do online to have a better experience,” said Rachel Merlo, community impact manager for Google Fiber in Kansas City. 

Here’s a look at who benefits from the upgraded service and who is still being left behind. 

How 2 Gig can meet increasing digital demands

The availability of 2-gigabit internet could help families using multiple devices that consistently require heavy internet usage — think Zoom calls, downloading and uploading large files, watching Netflix, streaming on YouTube or Twitch. 

For Alan Howze, assistant county administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, the pandemic meant his whole family, including his wife and his three school-age children, had to work and learn online. It was a demand that tested the limits of their 1-gigabit service from Google Fiber and spurred Howze to upgrade their Wi-Fi and switched networks last summer.

“We’re consistently getting more data,” he said. “So I think the evolution of offering 2-gig services is really a great step.”

Google Fiber’s traditional router offers 1-gig internet speeds. The company’s upgraded, 2-gig service requires the installation of a new router that is Wi-Fi 6 enabled. (Kelsey Ryan/The Beacon)

The faster internet could also help attract more businesses and people to Kansas City, said Jill McCarthy, senior vice president of corporate attraction at the Kansas City Area Development Council. McCarthy called it “another tool in the toolbox” for the city. 

“The faster internet you have at your company, the more you can get things done really easily,” McCarthy said.

It also looks good for the city to have high-speed internet access.

Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Drive, a local nonprofit dedicated to increasing digital access and digital innovation, doesn’t think the introduction of 2-gig internet will make a material difference on the divide on a local level.

“I think if you look at the digital divide in a more global way, it means that people in Kansas City are not going to be behind people outside Kansas City, which I think is really positive,” Deacon said.

Will Google Fiber’s 2-gig internet bridge Kansas City’s digital divide?

When Google Fiber first brought its services to neighborhoods across Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, it highlighted the divide that already existed between households that could afford to take advantage of the service, and those that could not. 

The deployment hinged on a preregistration process, where only neighborhoods that had enough residents preregister and pay a $10 deposit would receive the service. 

The result? Whiter, more affluent neighborhoods in Kansas City got access to Google Fiber first, while predominantly Black neighborhoods lagged behind. 

In 2011, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, approved an agreement with Google Fiber to provide its 1-gigabit service to schools, libraries and other public buildings, as a way to expand access. For instance, Kansas City Public Library branches became outfitted with Google Fiber’s services. 

A 2019 study by the Kansas City Public Library and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition found that residential broadband adoption in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas, increased from 67% in 2013 to 84% in 2018. But adoption rates among low-income families grew at a slower pace. 

Though Kansas City has the internet infrastructure in place — data from BroadbandNow shows 18 internet providers offering residential service — residents still face barriers to accessing those services. One of those major barriers is cost. 

“There’s always the tension in technology advancement, which is sort of, the farther out, you are … the further behind whoever is behind becomes,” KC Digital Drive’s Deacon said. “Unless you accelerate how quickly you’re able to catch them up.”

This map shows the apartment buildings in Kansas City, Missouri that are equipped with Google Fiber internet. (Credit: Google Maps)

A study conducted by data organization mySidewalk found that 14% of households in Kansas City, Missouri, do not have internet access. The report analyzed three criteria for its digital divide index: households without a computer, households without internet access and households below the poverty level. Census tracts with a higher index percentage are more likely to experience issues of digital access and connectivity.

The report found that neighborhoods east of Troost and the historic northeast, areas that are lower income and where more people of color live, ranked among the highest on the digital divide index. The percentage of households without internet access or a computer is highest in Kansas City’s 3rd Council District, which encompasses neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, where residents are predominantly Black.   

In 2016, founding members of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion — including Assistant City Manager Rick Usher, the Kansas City Public Library and nonprofits like Urban TEC — worked to expand Google Fiber’s reach. That year, Google Fiber launched its ConnectHome program in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which brought the company’s fiber internet to public housing properties in Kansas City. 

Pandemic led to local solutions for Kansas City’s digital divide

Local collaborations like the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion have worked during the pandemic to increase internet access for all. 

Last year, the Internet Access Support Program launched to help low-income families in the greater Kansas City metro pay for their internet service, find affordable internet or pay off past internet bills. The program was established by KC Digital Drive and received funding from COVID-19 relief money allocated to Johnson County, Kansas.

Deacon of KC Digital Drive said the program can cover up to $75 of a household’s monthly internet costs.

PCs for People Kansas City has been providing refurbished computers at a discounted price to families who need them throughout the pandemic. 

Warehouse specialists Jason Shipps and Robbie Tiller take apart desktop computer units at the Connecting for Good warehouse on May 13, 2020, in Kansas City. Last June, Connecting for Good officially merged with the national nonprofit PCs for People to provide refurbished computers at low cost to families. (India Garrish/The Beacon)

The Kansas City Public Library also increased its digital services throughout the pandemic. For instance, library branches extended their Wi-Fi networks outside their buildings so people could access the internet connection in the parking lot. The Kansas City Public Library also increased the number of hotspots it lends out.

Google Fiber provided funding during the pandemic to support PCs for People and the Kansas City Public Library as it expanded its digital services.

According to BroadbandNow, an online database showing internet service providers in a given area, there are 18 internet providers offering residential service in Kansas City, Missouri. BroadbandNow also found that the average household in Kansas City has access to six to seven internet companies. 

Google Fiber offers the fastest internet speeds in Kansas City, Missouri. Other internet providers offer lower-priced plans, though at lower speeds than Google Fiber’s 1-gig and 2-gig internet. AT&T’s lowest-cost internet plan, according to its website, costs $35 a month for 300 megabits per second. Spectrum’s cheapest internet service costs about $50 for 200 Mbps.

About Google Fiber’s 2-G service

How do I know if 2 gigs is the right speed for me?

It depends on what you use the internet for an how good your current service is at meeting your digital needs. If you’re consistently experiencing lags or interruptions in video streaming or conferencing, for instance, it might be time to upgrade.

To get an estimation of the internet speeds you need in your home, you can use BroadbandNow’s speed calculator.

McCarthy with the Kansas City Area Development Council said she’s happy with the upgrade to Google Fiber’s 2-gig service, especially in a household with multiple smart devices. 

“If you have guests, or kids in the house, or you have a bevy of people working in one location, they can all use it without stressing the speed,” she said.

What comes with the service upgrade?

Customers who upgrade will also receive a router that is Wi-Fi 6 enabled and a Google Fiber mesh extender. The extender means you can access your internet speeds anywhere in your home without lags or walking into “dead zones.” McCarthy said after the 2-gig installation was completed, the spots in her home that were normally internet dead zones went away. 

What is Wi-Fi 6? 

Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi. Having a Wi-Fi 6 router will give you faster speeds and better coverage than previous Wi-Fi routers, according to Consumer Reports. It will also allow you to transfer data faster. 

Wi-Fi 6 can also do a better job managing multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices. 

Howze with the Unified Government upgraded to a Wi-Fi 6 router last summer. He said doing so has eliminated a lot of the congestion his family used to experience when using the internet.

“Wi-Fi 6 is designed so that it can handle a lot more concurrent connections,” Howze said. “And service them without seeing that significant degradation and speeds.”

How much does it cost? 

Google Fiber’s 2-gig service is $100 a month. 

What is the upgrade process like? Is there installation involved?

If you are already a Google Fiber subscriber, or Google Fiber is available at your residence, upgrading to Google Fiber’s 2-gig service requires a one-time installation of the Wi-Fi 6 router and the mesh extender. You have to be home for the installation.

How can I check if it’s available where I live? 

You can check what Google Fiber services are available by entering your address at this link. To see what service providers and plans are available in your area, you can go to BroadbandNow and enter your address. 

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.