When public infrastructure goes private

Google is bringing a fiber-optic data network to homeowners in Kansas City, Mo., and Kan., but without the usual regulations. That means underprivileged neighborhoods may be left in the digital dust.

Consider some of the things that have bound our nation together:

Universal postal service at a flat rate, whether you live in Santa Monica or Sitka, Alaska. Interstate highways, built with taxpayer funds and free of tolls. Regulated phone and electric service, with lifeline rates for the economically disadvantaged.

These were all based on a social contract honoring the notion that essential infrastructure should be available to all — indeed, that those normally left by the side of the economic road might be most in need.

But you can kiss that notion goodbye, because today's model of building public infrastructure is to let private companies do it.

Americans are becoming more dependent on privately operated toll roads to get where we're going, and on private delivery services like FedEx and UPS to carry our parcels. But the greatest shift has occurred in the sector that is most crucial in the information age: communications and data networks.

That brings us to Google — as happens sooner or later with any discussion touching on digital technology. The Mountain View, Calif., behemoth has branched into the Internet service business by introducing a fiber-optic data network for homeowners in Kansas City, Mo., and its neighboring namesake in Kansas.

The service, which is expected to be fully functional by the end of this year, is upending the traditional business and regulatory model for phone, video and data communications. But Google managed to exempt itself from the regulations that typically force cable companies to wire all neighborhoods, rich, poor and in between, for the Internet. The result threatens to leave underprivileged neighborhoods in the digital dust.

Ceding such a crucial service to a private company with minimal regulation is something that happened with virtually no public discussion about its implications for society.

"The dialogue has to happen at the national level, because it can't happen at the local level," says Shannon Jackson, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

It's unsurprising that Google's activities underscore the evolution of the infrastructure model, because the company is pervasive. Its Gmail is the nation's largest single email network, relied on by millions of users for daily communications. But Google is still a corporation, and if it decided tomorrow that Gmail didn't produce for its bottom line, nothing could stop the company from shutting it down. Compare that to the obstacles facing the U.S. Postal Service in its desire merely to end Saturday mail delivery to save money; under intense political pressure,USPS last week dropped the plan.

Google is not the only firm that provides a service on which millions of users have come to depend but which is wholly subject to private economic decision-making. Facebook claims more than a billion users worldwide, but its network is heavily geared toward exploiting their personal information to make money for itself.

But Google Fiber, as the network is called, is the best example of the private rollout of socially crucial infrastructure. In 2010, the company invited communities to compete to become the first location of a service providing connection speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, as much as 100 times faster than the average high-speed network. Bids arrived from 1,100 communities, and the winners were Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. Last week, Google announced that Austin, Texas, will be the next municipality to get the service.

It was obvious from the start that the removal of regulatory obstacles would count heavily in the race. The victors promised sedulous cooperation, including a team to provide "on-the-spot" exceptions where rules and regulations threatened delays. The two Kansas Cities even bowed to the demand they "obtain Google's approval for all public statements" about the project.

Notably, they didn't insist that Google guarantee service to their most disadvantaged communities. The reason is obvious: They didn't have any real choice about the terms; it was fiber on Google's terms, or no fiber at all.

That's a real departure from the model of universal service that governed cable-based Internet service more recently, in which a cable company typically is granted a citywide monopoly — if it promises to serve every neighborhood. (That's the deal Time Warner Cable has from Kansas City, Mo.)

The municipalities plainly were willing to meet Google's conditions because a nation-leading, super-high-speed Internet service looks like an offer a city can't refuse. "This makes us stand out from the crowd," says Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo. Obviously there's no prospect of building such a network with municipal funds, he says. "We have a lot of needs and very little money. We would not be in this mode unless Google came."

Google is rolling out the fiber network according to what it calls a "demand-driven model." Dividing the community into 202 "fiberhoods," it announced that only those where a certain percentage of residents signed up in advance and paid a $10 registration fee would qualify for service. The percentages ranged from 5% for dense urban neighborhoods to 25% for spread-out suburbs. The service will cost $70 a month for Internet, $120 to include TV.

Naturally, the most affluent fiberhoods qualified first. Shortly before the deadline of Sept. 9, 2012, huge swathes of the Missouri city's poor east side were still off the list. An intense drive by community groups rectified that, but 20 neighborhoods, almost all low-income and high-minority, failed to qualify.

Google has tried to put the best face on this by portraying the qualification process as a sort of community kumbaya, "allowing the citizens of City to determine where and when the Project will be deployed." (The words come from Google's contract with Kansas City, Mo.)

But that's nonsense. Had the city tried to make that determination through its elected representatives, say by requiring service to underprivileged neighborhoods, Google's response would have been, "Adios." The company's goal was to spend money where it was likeliest to attain a critical mass of customers. The inevitable outcome was an economic one: redlining.

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