Business & Tech
2:40 pm
Wed April 10, 2013

Is Austin's Google Gain KC's Loss?

Google announced yesterday that it’s building a new high-speed fiber-optic network -- this time in Austin, Texas. It’s been two years since the company announced it would build its first fiber-optic network here in Kansas City, and many residents hoped it would be everywhere by now.

Planning for the network has Kansas Citians rethinking the future of many aspects of life and business here.

Feature story about Google Fiber's progress in Kansas City.

Ground Zero for Google Fiber

“Startup Village” is a little strip of cozy bungalows on State Line Road. It’s where the gigabit internet was first turned on last fall.

“Four doors down is actually four startups and then, two doors down from that there’s commercial buildings with three startups and another startup pipeline moving in … this week,” says programmer Phil Jaycox.

Jaycox moved here recently from St. Louis to live at the Home for Hackers, which offers three-month, rent-free housing to budding internet entrepreneurs.  He’s developing a mapping program for delivery services, and he’s using the gigabit connection to play around with 3D imaging. 

Jaycox says even more than bandwidth, geeks are coming to Kansas City for networking -- the people kind.

“I can walk four houses down and bounce an idea off of four different companies and they can be like, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea,’ or ‘Hey, that’s terrible,’ or, ‘You should just quit;’ that’s what’s cool about it.

Some of the techies who did a stint at the home have decided to stay in Kansas City. One has moved his business team here from Boston. And after a long day’s work designing next-generation gaming applications, or a program where musicians on different continents can jam together, or a cell phone-based retina scanner, local programmers can get together and design goofy speed tests for their internet connection.

Like this one, Too Many Kittens For Broadband:

New Service Prompts Conversations About KC's Future

So far, only 3,000 to 4,000 homes are connected to Google Fiber, and it’s taken about a year longer than expected to get it up and running. Meanwhile, Kansas Citians have been brainstorming the possibilities of a new information infrastructure.

Aaron Deacon is managing director of KC Digital Drive, an organization that was created out of the Mayors’ Bistate Innovation Team established by Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James and Kansas City, Kansas Mayor Joe Reardon.

“There is part of the project that is, okay, what specific kind of cool things can I do with having Google Fiber in a building,” Deacon says. “But there is still the broader project, and the much larger project of what are the systematic changes that we need to affect in order to use this.”

Local governments and businesses are trying to figure out how the new technology could transform sectors like education, health care and the arts. 

Deacon says it’s not really about the technology, but defining goals for the future.

“Having the technology in place forces people to really focus, and recalibrate and say, ‘Oh, okay, the future is a little closer than maybe we thought it was.'"

One thing hampering plans for economic development is that Google has not yet offered a business plan; so far, only residences (or home businesses) can connect to Google Fiber.  Still, Deacon says Google Fiber has attracted funding for business incubators and other digital ventures, like Code for America, which is helping local governments engage with citizens online.

One way Google Fiber is already making a difference is in the marketplace - other cable operators are offering all sorts of deals for conventional broadband. Google Fiber is expensive: $70  a month, or $120 with Google TV.

Bridging The Digital Divide

Michael Liimatta, co-founder of the organization Connecting for Good, is concerned that many people won’t be able to afford it.

“The city’s going to become one of the most wired cities in America, and we just don’t want to see tens of thousands of families left out with no connection at all,” Liimatta says.

Connecting for Good aims to bring the internet to those who can’t afford access. Google executives said bridging the digital divide was part of their goal (they even commissioned a study examining the issue in Kansas City), but they’re only hooking up neighborhoods, and public institutions, where enough residents have signed up, leaving out the poorest communities.

That’s not stopping Liimatta, whose organization recently brought free Wi-Fi to two local public housing projects (in Rosedale and Juniper Gardens), without Google’s help.  He says his organization was founded in response to Google’s announcement that it was coming to Kansas City.

“Even if Google is not necessarily the vehicle for achieving a lot of this stuff,” Liimatta says, “they certainly are to be praised for getting us on a track to where we’re thinking about a lot of this.”

Competing With Austin

Now with Austin expected to get its fiber-optic network by the summer of 2014, some Kansas Citians are afraid of losing a competitive advantage to the Texas tech hub.

But KC Digital Drive’s Aaron Deacon says any network becomes more powerful as it grows.

“If there’s a clear trajectory to where this is taking hold and that population is going to grow beyond Kansas City, then that critical mass in Kansas City becomes meaningful,” Deacon says. “If we just had 50,000 homes here and there was no activity anyplace else and there was no indication that … this thing was really catching on, than it wouldn’t really matter.”

Still, many Kansas Citians are feeling the urgency to prove what Google’s fiber-optic network can do for a city. 

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.