Should we be happy that things could be worse?
Today, Alphabet, the holdings company formerly known as Google, announced that it will begin rolling out a free connection to its Google Fiber internet service to a public housing project in Kansas City.
The initiative, undertaken as part of the federal government's ConnectHome project to bring high speed broadband to underserved communities, will hook people living in public housing up to a gigabit internet connection in any city Fiber operates in, in the future. Alphabet is also offering free training on basic computer skills and discounted devices.
A massive tech company like Alphabet offering free internet to the world's less wealthy has a familiar ring to it. Facebook's controversial Free Basics platform, which offers people in developing countries a package of online basics, such as news and a stripped-down version of Facebook, has been widely criticized as a way to get disadvantaged people hooked into the Facebook product pipeline.
For now, it appears as though Alphabet's plan is just to plug people into the open web at speeds most of us can only dream about, for free. A google spokesperson confirmed over email that the free Fiber project is a voluntary initiative for the company, and they are not receiving any compensation.
Regardless of the details, a huge corporation helping to fix America's ailing public housing infrastructure raises some important questions. Most importantly: is it even a private company's job to fix what is a national problem of public concern?
US Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro has been beating the privatization drum for years
There was a time, near the beginning of the 20th century, when public housing in the US was seen as a surefire way to turn downtrodden areas into "model communities." (It's a goal not without its own exclusionary terms, for who is deemed a "model" citizen?) But even this is no longer, as "public housing" is often taken as a euphemism for "dangerous neighbourhood," which are themselves the product of years of disinvestment by the government.
To fix this, US Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro has been beating the privatization drum for years, even writing in a 2014 op-ed that the trick to fixing the US's ailing public housing infrastructure is to "tap into the power of the marketplace." ConnectHome, the program under which Google is rolling out its free Fiber connection, was announced by Castro himself, along with President Barack Obama. Castro also sat down with Google chairman Eric Schmidt for a livestreamed chat on the project in January.
A government official who wished to remain anonymous told Motherboard that looking to Google and other private companies is the result of years of budget cuts for the housing department, which doesn't have the resources it needs to undertake the full challenge of revitalizing public housing on its own. A call on Congress to fund the housing department to a greater degree may be appropriate, the official said.
The buddy-buddy nature of the partnership will no doubt rub some civic-minded observers the wrong way, along with the apparent unwillingness of the head of the US government's housing department to consider public solutions. And, let's be real, an internet connection and good press for Alphabet is no replacement for, oh, I don't know, maybe addressing the social and economic issues that led to this problem in the first place?
But it's also true that free Google Fiber is way better deal than what some other communities are getting from the ConnectHome project.
In Seattle, for example, the US government's ConnectHome fact sheet notes that CenturyLink will be providing public housing projects with a connection to its Internet Basics package for $9.95 per month for the first year, and $14.95 after that. Users will get speeds "up to" 1.5 Mbps in return. That is a very, very slow connection, on par with what's available in the Arctic. Do people living in Seattle have the same digital needs as people living near ice floes? Probably not. It's also worth noting here that the US government's stated standard for baseline high speed internet is 25 Mbps.
As a corporate-led and arguably technocratic solution to one of America's gravest social ills, Google Fiber is lacking. But at least these people aren't getting CenturyLink.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that CenturyLink's prices for Internet Basics were $9.99 and $14.99. The actual numbers are $9.95 and $14.95. This article has been updated and Motherboard regrets the error.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article stated that Google had not yet responded to our request for comment. We received a comment from Google after this article was posted, and we've updated it inline with that comment.
UPDATE: Comment from a government official who wished to remain anonymous was added.