As Louisville Seeks Fiber Internet, A New Focus On The Digital Divide Emerges
Deborah Collins squinted her eyes, triple-checking the information on the screen in front of her. She traced the blinking cursor with her finger, repeating her ZIP code, address and phone number.
"Looking good," she assured herself.
Her eyes had been fixed on the computer for more than three hours over the past two days. She'd been pecking methodically at the keyboard, plugging her personal information into the not-so-personal computer.
It's one of two desktop computers at the Kentucky Recovery Resource Center, where residents can get online for free to search for jobs, craft resumes or file taxes.
Collins walked 10 blocks to get here, lugging a shoulder bag packed with a small stack of Alcoholics Anonymous books, a Bible and other personal items. It's a trip she makes nearly every day.
"It's not too far," she said. "Unless it's cold."
The resource center at the corner of 26th and Market streets is the only place Collins can log onto the Internet. She lives at a halfway house with Internet access but no computer — even though her rent covers the cost of the connection. And she doesn't have a smartphone.
For Collins and many of the women who live there, the resource center is the only link to a job or critical benefits like Social Security, health insurance and food stamps.
Their situation provides a glimpse into the new digital divide.
The breach was once between those who had Internet access and those who didn't, said Ted Smith, the city's chief of innovation. These days, it's much different.
Nearly everyone has access to the Internet, but not everyone can use it. Some, like Collins, don't have a computer; others can't afford a costly data plan for a smartphone.
A 2013 survey by Pew Research found nearly 9 percent of American adults use the Internet but lack access at their home. Poorer, less-educated adults are more likely to depend on out-of-home access, according to Pew.
The same survey found 13 percent of respondents said they don't use the Internet because they lack a computer.
Smith said in Louisville, there are huge disparities in functional, cost-effective access to the Internet. Home access is sparse in economically struggling areas, like in the blocks surrounding the resource center in Russell.
The lack of access is something Smith and other city officials are trying to address.
They've set up a handful of free WiFi hotspots in the area, including one at a bus stop across the street from the resource center.
"If we can find a way to make, at least, a tier of service available so that we don't have people entirely left out, that'd be great," Smith said.
The hotspots also track data usage over time, Smith said. City officials expect that will offer evidence that Internet connectivity is a resource people value across the city, regardless of socioeconomic status.
"Then we can ask the bigger question of, why are there people looking for free hotspots, right?" Smith said. "It's because they don't have a cost-effective answer at home."
Fiber For All?
One way to begin to bridge Louisville's digital divide may be on its way.
Smith and Mayor Greg Fischer's administration, along with members of the Louisville Metro Council, have been working to ensure the city is primed for fiber Internet service.
Fiber connectivity has the potential to bring ultra-high speed Internet that is up to 100 times faster than what's currently available — and at a cheaper rate. That could mean more opportunities for poorer residents to tap into the service.
Google Fiber, perhaps the most prominent provider now considering whether to bring the service to Louisville, has made a small push in Kansas City — considered a star of fiber cities — to get poorer residents plugged in to high-speed Internet.
But that effort came in the wake of criticism that Google Fiber's initial rollout in Kansas City favored more affluent white neighborhoods over poorer areas with higher concentrations of black residents.
In other cities where Google Fiber is setting up service — such as Austin, Charlotte and Nashville — the provider is teaming up with community groups and nonprofits to support initiatives to promote digital inclusion across more neighborhoods.
The presence of Google Fiber alone can entice other providers to offer comparable services to stay competitive. In Louisville, it has prompted AT&T to announce plans to begin offering ultra-high speed connectivity through its U-Verse service.
The competition will be good for users, said Jason Falls, president of the Louisville Digital Association. He said more options will likely bring lower prices.
But Falls said service providers such as Google Fiber are looking for a broad user base in Louisville, and it's "imperative" that city leaders help ensure poor people aren't left out. Among other things, Internet access can help shrink literacy and education gaps that often exist among poorer populations.
But, he said, the city's business sector is clearly what is driving the push for fiber innovation.
"The most important impact that higher-speed access, Google Fiber, those types of infrastructure improvements bring are in the economic development and business sectors," he said.
'I deserve Internet'
Since Google Fiber announced last year they would look at Louisville for their ultra-high speed Internet service, Smith has said it's unclear which areas of the city would be first to have access.
At a recent Metro Council meeting, dozens of people invested in the tech and startup scenes crowded into the chambers to watch the city's legislative body cast approving votes for a pair of new laws streamlining the fiber Internet installation process.
Applause erupted once the votes were tallied, and tweets of praise soon followed. The measures are seen as major steps toward making Louisville fiber-friendly.
Deborah Collins was not there. She didn't see the tweets, either. By the time the final vote came in, she had already settled in for the night at the halfway house, no computer in sight.
She'd love a laptop, she said. It would make filing her taxes easier. It would make job hunting more manageable, too.
Beyond that, a laptop or smartphone could help her connect with her 16-year-old daughter, who lives in Southern Indiana with Collins' parents.
Browsing Facebook from the recovery center is frowned upon, she said. So she relies on texts and calls to stay in touch. But she knows her daughter peppers a Facebook page with pictures of prom dresses, friends and a life from which Collins feels disconnected.
"It's a blessing to be able to get on Facebook, see my daughter and still communicate with the outside world, even though I'm living in a different situation than everybody else," she said. "I deserve Internet, just like everyone else."