Kansas City, Ks. – One mayor threw himself into Lake Superior. One city changed its name to Google for a month. But all to no avail. Google has announced its first coveted high-speed fiber-optic network will be built in a city that didn't do any flashy publicity stunts, but beat out 11 hundred competitors. But what does this high-tech marriage mean for Google, and for KCK?
At a deserted bus-stop in the heart of downtown Kansas City Kansas, college student Jose Pineda says he thinks the internet is pretty fast already. He generally uses it to watch videos.
The new fiber-optic cable is supposed to 100 times faster than your typical broadband connection in the United States. But Pineda's not sure what he needs that for.
"I mean - how fast could that be?" he asks. "Is that the speed of light, or what?"
Pineda's not the only one asking.
On Wednesday, Wyandotte High School's auditorium was decked out in Google's colors for the announcement. Governor Sam Brownback declared it Google Day in Kansas. But he, too, is not sure what you can do with internet connections of 1 gigabit per second.
"Back stage we were just talking ahead of time about what does this mean," Brownback said, "And everybody looks around and is kinda like I am not exactly sure."
That's part of the point of this experiment, says Kevin Lo, who's general manager of the Google Access project. He says the new burst of speed will drive innovation and create its own applications, just like broadband did in the past decade.
"When you went from dial-up to broadband, that fundamental shift in how you use the web, is what we expect, what we believe will happen, on top of this network," Lo said. He does give some examples of what the ultra-high speed internet can make much easier today: video-conferencing, telemedicine, 3D imaging.
Mayor Joe Reardon says the new network could make Kansas City, Kansas a home for companies that rely on internet distribution or need a lot of bandwidth.
"We've already fielded calls within 24 hours of our announcement of people saying, hey - where's housing - I'm interested in looking at your city," Reardon says. "Maybe I should be moving there."
Reardon knows that Google chose Kansas City Kansas because of some of its challenges. The aging infrastructure is actually going to make it easier for Google to lay the fiber optic cable. The city also has a high poverty rate. And like similar places around the country, Reardon says there's a digital divide between those who have access to the internet, and those who don't.
" What excites us about our partnership with Google is they understand that, and they want to work with us to have this dialog to sort of bridge that digital divide," Reardon says, "not just by way of access, but by way of learning and understanding and valuing the internet and connectivity as an essential component to quality of life."
The city has already been working on this issue. The school district gives a laptop to every high school student, and has received national attention for reducing its racial achievement gap.
But Google has other motives in rolling out this new fiber-optic cable. Officials say they're trying to nudge the US cable and telecommunications industries to provide faster internet connections at lower prices.
Michigan State University professor Robert LaRose says he doesn't expect Google will make much of a dent in the market in the short term.
"In the long term though, it might inspire carriers out there to help America get back in the game," LaRose says.
Kansas City, Kansas is expecting to have its network up and running next year. Google hasn't announced yet how much the service will cost, or how soon it will expand to other parts of the country.
Google will host a public forum about the new initiative on Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at the Reardon Center..