Google Fiber: Why does Kansas City get to go high-speed?

Super high-speed Internet comes to Kansas City, courtesy of Google. Business leaders hope lightning fast connections with spur innovation and jobs. Google looks to be expanding further from its original business of Internet searching.  

Michael Randolph/The Bay City Times/AP
City worker Tim Shotwell installs a Google Boulevard sign in Bay City, Mich., in 2010 as part of a bid to get Google to choose Bay City for the Google Fiber network. Kansas City won the bid and Google unveiled the service Thursday, July 26, in Kansas City.

Imagine downloading the entire Godfather trilogy in high definition in about a minute. How about getting every single Beatles song from the iTunes store in even less time?

If you live in Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri, as of Thursday you have that option, brought to you by the same technology giant who turned an Internet search engine into a verb, a valuable stock, and a household name: Google.

The project to turn this Midwestern city of about 600,000 into a hub of hyper-fast Internet – called Google Fiber – is expected to yield tangible benefits for the local economy. As one of the most prominent launches of a citywide network, it could also highlight the broader issue of slow Internet – as speed becomes crucial for innovation in a digital economy.

“It raises the visibility of the city and the region as being a significant place to find both technology and entrepreneurs,” says Joni Cobb, president and CEO of Pipeline, an entrepreneurial fellowship program based in Kansas City. “It allows them to do everything faster, better, and cheaper.”

For $70 a month, Google Fiber offers an Internet hookup 100 times faster than average US broadband speeds, taking advantage of advanced networks of fiber-optic cables. It’s speedy enough to download an HD movie in a few seconds and it’s the type of network often called “future proof,” because it’s limited more by the computers sending information than by network speeds.

“In the 20th century, businesses would look at a town and see if it had an exit on the interstate [to decide to locate there],” says Patrick Lucey, a researcher and one of the authors of a recent report on internet connectivity by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. “In the twenty-first century, they’ll look for a fiber-optic network.”

The connection uploads just as fast as it downloads, which is both rare and essential for companies or individuals that work with large amounts of data. Telemedicine— the practice of doctors treating patients remotely over an Internet connection— is one such area, and the Google Fiber project could potentially turn Kansas City into a center for that industry, according to Ryan Weber, president of KCNext, the Technology Council of Greater Kansas City. Telemedicine is considered one potential way to reduce the cost of healthcare.

Kansas City beat out more than 1,100 other cities to win the Google project. The company said the enthusiasm of residents won it over. The company is using a similar metric to decide who gets Fiber service first: neighborhoods that express the most interest by pre-registering will be the first to be wired.

This isn’t the first such network in the US. Morristown, Tenn. and Lafayette, La., have it. High-speed Internet has brought thousands of high-paying jobs to Bristol, Va. and a startup incubator to Chattanooga, Tenn. Unlike most Internet service, those cities run their networks as local utilities like electricity or water.

Fast Internet speeds are potentially so important for the economic future that residents of Leverett, Mass., voted in June to finance a similar project, even though it will raise property taxes there by approximately 6 percent.

The Kansas City project will likely highlight the fact that average Internet speeds in most US cities lag far behind those in European and Asian cities, according to the Open Technology Institute. The US ranks 13th in average network speed according to Akamai’s “State of the Internet” report, behind South Korea, Hong Kong, Latvia, Romania, Denmark, and others.

The Google project will also be the cheapest super-fast connection in the country, and Google has added other enticements such as high-speed access for people that don’t have it, about one-quarter of Kansas City’s population. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay $70 a month for the one gigabit per second connection can pay $300 to connect their home to the network and then have free access to the Web at the current US average speeds for seven years – which Google says should increase property values.

Mind you, the Google project isn’t wholly philanthropic. The search engine is also potentially challenging cable companies or DSL-phone service by offering the super fast connection plus TV service for $120 a month. In Kansas City, other ISPs offer cheaper TV and Web packages deals for $90, but their download speeds are only ten to 20 megabits per second as opposed to 1,000, and their upload speeds even slower.

This suggests that the project may be part of a larger business strategy to put Google in direct competition with the companies that connect your home to Internet and TV in the first place, companies like Time Warner or RCN or Comcast.  It mirrors other efforts by Google to branch beyond its original core business of Internet searching: like Android and smartphones, or Google Plus and social media, or Chrome and Internet browsers, or the Nexus tablet computer. 

“I think what we see from them is efforts to lead the way by demonstrating how they think tech ought to be done,” says Jeff Jarvis, author of the book “What Would Google Do?” “I think the same is true of the fiber launch. This is what you can have America, go demand it. And if we all did demand it, that’s great business for Google. The more we are online, the more Google makes,” Jarvis says.

Chris Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based policy organization focused on community development, says the project could change the way people think about broadband connections and show what’s possible when bandwidth isn’t an issue. 

“It gives you a sense of how incredibly overpriced the connections most of us have are,” Mitchell says. “Google is not doing anything that other companies like Comcast or Time Warner couldn’t do.”

The project might end up being a watershed moment to make broadband ubiquitous around the US, according to Toby Rush, founder and CEO of EyeVerify, a Kansas City company that makes a biometric tool that establishes identity based on a human eye, seen by a smartphone camera. 

“I think in the not too distant future, five to seven years from now, we will simply assume there will be Internet connectivity wherever we go, like we assume there will be electricity now,” Mr. Rush says.

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