How Kansas City scored the biggest technological coup of the century

There was no phone call. No congratulations. No dramatic reveal. It was winter of early 2011. Former Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon remembers a long, exhausting day of negotiations. At the end, there was nothing left to negotiate. All of Google’s questions were answered and their requests were met. And that was it…

It’s been three years since Google’s officially announced Fiber would come to Kansas City, Kan. This is the first in a two-part series examining the impact of Google Fiber on Kansas City. The second part, focusing on the present and future use of Fiber, can be found here

The Kansas City, Kan., city hall lights up with Google’s colors following its live announcement. 

There was no phone call. No congratulations. No dramatic reveal.

It was winter of early 2011. Former Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon remembers a long, exhausting day of negotiations. At the end, there was nothing left to negotiate. All of Google’s questions were answered and their requests were met.

And that was it.

“Google didn’t just call one day and say, ‘It’s you.’ It wasn’t like you were chosen,” the now-former KCK mayor said. “It was a dialogue with lots of talking, visits and negotiations.

“That day, we had a couple of things knocked out and we realized there weren’t any other things that needed to be checked off. We looked at each other and knew, ‘This is it.’ The deal is done.”

Nothing was official, but just like that, KCK was one step closer to being the first community in the country with Google Fiber. But for weeks, Reardon had to keep the news a secret. 

“It was a celebratory day,” he said. “I was exhausted… but you couldn’t tell anybody. You couldn’t say anything to anybody.”

Reardon calls the experience one of his most exciting times as mayor, saying the negotiations with Google were thrilling, intellectually stimulating and challenging at times, but ultimately worth it.

More than three years later, it’s common to see Google’s colorful, bunny-emblazoned Fiber trucks weaving through neighborhoods on both sides of the Kansas and Missouri state line. 

But in Feb. 2010, when Google first announced its plans for ultra-high-speed broadband, no one could have guessed Kansas City, one of more than 1,100 applicants, would be first to Fiberhood.

Not Silicon Valley. Not New York City or Austin. None of the incumbent hotspots. Somehow, Kansas City—a metro of about 2.3 million people—managed to score one of the biggest tech coups of the century.

Kansas City didn’t change its name to Google, Kan., like Topeka did. And unlike the residents of Duluth, Minn., Kansas Citians didn’t offer to name all their first-born children “Google.” In fact, there were surprisingly few gimmicks when it came time for the cities to submit applications to the tech giant. Yet the two cities also didn’t know their neighbors were involved.

While local government leaders from KCK and Kansas City, Mo., put together applications, it wasn’t until much later that both sides discovered the other had been chosen as well.

“Why did we pick Kansas City?” said Google’s vice president of access services Milo Medin during Google’s live announcement. “We wanted to find a location where we could build quickly and efficiently. Kansas City has great infrastructure. And Kansas has a great, business-friendly environment for us to deploy a service. The utility here has all kinds of conduit in it that avoids us having to tear the streets open and a bunch of other stuff that really differentiates it from other places in the country.”

Now, exactly three years after KCK was officially announced as the nation’s first Fiber City, the two communities and their surrounding areas are still grappling with how to harness Google Fiber’s potential. 

For KCK, Fiber was an infrastructure solution

Former mayor Joe Reardon shares how KCK got Google Fiber from the law office where he now works.

Long before Google announced Fiber, KCK’s leaders understood the importance of an infrastructure that supported ultra-high-speed Internet, Reardon says.

In the early 2000s, the local public utilities board wanted to create the framework itself, but Reardon says it was a challenge to figure out how KCK, with a population of about 147,000, could finance such a large project on its own.

“Without the city trying to spur this, the infrastructure was at risk for continuing to decay,” he said.

Reardon says even before Google was in the picture, he had a sense that high-speed broadband connectivity would one day be commonplace.

“[Gigabit Internet] is something we’re going to accept in 10 or 20 years as essential and as normal as water or electricity,” Reardon said. “No one could’ve predicted we would’ve been the first to get it or done so with Google.”

When Google’s Fiber contest came along in Feb. 2010, Reardon says the city still hadn’t found a solution for creating an infrastructure of Fiber’s magnitude. Google’s initial call for local governments to complete a request for information (RFI) was fairly vague, but along with more than 1,100 cities from across the country, KCK applied to be the first to test drive Fiber.

Along with other aspects, Reardon says KCK showcased how it had previously worked with private partners. While the city struggled at economic development in the past, Reardon says Kansas City learned the ropes in the last 15 years through public-private partnerships that spurred the Kansas City Speedway, Sporting KC’s stadium and Legends Outlet Mall. 

Move quickly and adapt

After the fateful day in early 2011, Reardon’s sense of relief and celebration quickly dissipated into a mess of logistics and unanswered questions.

When would Google announce KCK as the chosen one? How much would Fiber cost users? How much extra is the TV service? When would the city be able to roll out service? How?

“For us, no one knew what we were doing,” he said.

KCK had no idea how other communities approached their applications, but Reardon knew his administration would need to move quickly and agilely to accommodate Google and its impending rollout. 

Two things, he said, helped them rise above the competition: the city provided the resources needed to move through the administrative process quickly, but also got rid of unnecessary regulations during the permitting process.

“There’s things you just have to do, the permitting process, the legal process, but can you do it faster than you’ve ever done it before?” Reardon said.

To help itself get out of Google’s way, KCK pooled city hall’s resources to make sure the legal and permitting processes associated with Fiber’s rollout moved quickly. 

KCK also had the benefit of a public power utility. Reardon worked closely with the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities to figure out how stringing Fiber infrastructure would logistically work.

But even then, Reardon says he can’t remember another undertaking of this scope in KCK.

“We cut our teeth on everything,” he said. “From how to work fast or how the Fiberhood contest would go to make sure citizens had access. It was uncharted territory. You couldn’t look at other examples, you just had to figure it out and go.

“The city was more creative and entrepreneurial because of it, because we had to be.”

On March 30, 2011, after weeks of waiting, Google officially announced on its Fiber blog that KCK would be the first city in the country to receive Google Fiber.

The announcement sparked a string of complaints and notes of disappointment from the forgotten cities.

That afternoon, hours after it was originally posted, the tech giant updated the blog: “We’ve heard from some communities that they’re disappointed not to have been selected for our initial build. So just to reiterate what I’ve said many times in interviews: We’re so thrilled by the interest we’ve generated—today is the start, not the end of the project. 

“And over the coming months, we’ll be talking to other interested cities about the possibility of us bringing ultra-high-speed broadband to their communities.”

It appeared Google was on to something big and, despite other cities’ protests, KCK would be on the forefront.

“People would want to see this”

Members of the Kansas City Startup Village look on as a Google contracter (far left) completes one of the final steps on the home’s Google Fiber installation on Nov. 13, 2012. 

After KCK’s official announcement, the next big discussion was to determine which neighborhood would be first to have Fiber installed. Based on density, each KCK neighborhood needed a certain number of Google Fiber pre-registrations in order to unlock connectivity for the area.

When Kansas City Startup Village co-leader Matthew Marcus learned Hanover Heights, Kan., would be the first neighborhood to receive Google’s new ultra-high-speed connection (it reached pre-registration requirements in two hours) he never imagined the spotlight Google Fiber would shine on the community.

“Everyone watches Google’s every move from around the world,” he said. “Here’s something happening that Google is only doing in one place and it’s happening in our backyard, like literally happening in that alleyway over there. 

“I just knew we needed to be recording this because people would want to see this stuff.”

And they did. 

Along with other members of KCSV, Marcus live streamed their installation on Nov. 13, 2012, one of the service’s first in KCK. Since, nearly 35,000 have watched what’s a pretty straightforward installation process on YouTube. 

Kansas City was learning that when Internet speeds are 100 times faster than most providers can offer, people pay attention.

Even if KCMO didn’t get Fiber, they’d already won

March 22, 2011, was election night in Kansas City, Mo.

Councilwoman Cindy Circo had won her second-term election and should have been celebrating. But around 10:30 p.m. she got a call from assistant city manager Rick Usher, whom she had been working closely with to bring Google Fiber to KCMO. Usher relayed that Google was preparing to announce KCK as the first installation site for Fiber—without its Missouri counterpart. 

Circo was disappointed.  

“I knew how hard these guys had worked and it would’ve been seen as a failure because everyone knew we had applied,” she said. “They weren’t going to announce we were coming behind them, they were just going to announce us later. 

“I stayed up all night long trying to figure out how I could still make this co-announcement happen.” 

The next morning, Circo attended a unity breakfast with newly elected KCMO Mayor Sly James

She asked for a quick meeting. An hour and a half later, James emerged and promptly found himself smack in the middle of KCMO’s Fiber negotiations.

“I had an immediate sense of, ‘Don’t screw this up,’ and also an immediate sense that this was a big deal, a watershed type of event in that it was all happening before I’d even raised my hand and sworn to be the mayor, but here I am right in the middle of it,” James (right) said of the March 23 meeting, a day after he was elected.

Ultimately, the joint announcement didn’t happen. Eight days later, Google announced KCK as the first Fiber City in the nation. 

The public wouldn’t know big brother KCMO across the river was hiding in the weeds. It would be almost two months until Google made that official announcement. Two cities that had long struggled with a rivalry now had the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology, together.

One project, bringing a community together

Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo speaks during Google’s announcement in Kansas City, Mo. 

When Google first announced its Fiber competition, a number of groups in the KCMO community, including the city’s IT department, set out to compile applications. 

Along with KCMO’s initial efforts, community members had taken up the torch to submit an application to Google, creating a community Facebook group and organizing weekly meetings hosted at Crossroads co-working space OfficePort.

But Circo says each was doing so in silos, and soon realized the project would reach across city departments into the private sector and greatly impact everyday citizens.  

“I always say this is the one project politically that I’ve worked on that brought in all sectors of our community—it crossed state lines, it crossed our river, it crossed economics,” Circo said. “I remember one of the very first project meetings I went to and I’m pulling up next to a Mercedes on one side and then a kid with a backpack rides up on his bicycle on the other.

“They all had the same value in the conversation and I thought, ‘This is going to be big. This is really going to be big, even if we don’t get it.’”

In her first term as councilwoman, Fiber became a pet project of Circo’s, one she will remember more than any other, she said.

“You’re only here for eight years, that is if you’re lucky enough to be elected twice, and you really work on multiple things at one time,” Circo said. “But this is one project that is like giving birth to a child—you remember every stage of it. You can say at four months, ‘It’s doing this,’ and I don’t have that same memory or experience with any other project.”

Once she became heavily involved in the project, Usher along with assistant city manager Kimiko Black Gilmore stepped in to help organize the process and determine the best way to share KCMO’s story with Google.

“We had a strong focus. No offense to any city that may have changed their name to Google, but I wasn’t going to jump into Jello,” Circo said, harkening back to some of the gimmicks towns across the country employed to catch Google’s eye. “I love our roller derby girls, but I wasn’t going to put a Google-themed outfit on and do roller derby or anything like that to garner attention. 

“We sold ourselves on who are, the ecosystem that exists here and our position in the country. I think that we could give Google any scenario they were looking for to test and really sticking to that message showed them that we were serious.”

While many cities, including KCK, had ultra-high-speed connectivity on the brain as early as 2008, Usher says KCMO wasn’t nearly as engaged with early discussions about the need for gigabit Internet. 

“On a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of cities that were most actively trying to get fiber to their community, we were in the 90s,” Usher (left) said. “We were not really engaged in this. All, of course, while cursing our service providers.”

Consolidating all of those efforts into one organized channel was one of the first big hurdles. Since Circo viewed the project as a community endeavor, it only made sense to open up the creation of KCMO’s RFI to the public through a collaborative Google Doc. 

“It just seems like such a crazy idea, but it came together and really started working,” Black Gilmore said. “It was really hard to navigate at first, and then just to have that transparency of everyone dumping things in, it was really overwhelming at times.”

When all was said and done, 117 collaborators—from city officials and civic engineers to startup leaders and community supporters—left their mark on the Google Doc that ultimately became KCMO’s application to Google. In the end though, only one person—Rick Usher—could press send.

Then they waited. 

A step toward calming the “Border War”

Whereas KCK had a small group of leaders spearheading the Google Fiber project and involvement from the city’s public utilities, KCMO presented a very different model for Google in its sweeping community approach and private utility partnership through Kansas City Power and Light Company

While Reardon spearheaded the push for Fiber in KCK, KCMO’s now former mayor Mark Funkhouser—laden with controversy during his term—had almost no involvement with the project, leaving Circo and a collection of community leaders to approach the agreement with Google differently, she said. 

“I wasn’t even (mayor) pro tem then,” Circo explained. “I was a city council person in my first term, low person on the totem pole, so the dynamics were a lot different, especially when it came down to negotiating time. I was making decisions at the level that probably a mayor should be making decisions.”

Looking back, the decision to immediately involve James, still more than a month from his official inauguration as mayor, was a matter of clout. KCMO needed someone with authority—and charisma—to help carry the project with Google forward. 

“He’s got the personality to take something like that and blow it up,” Circo said of James. “He’s so amazingly dynamic.”

Even if KCMO didn’t get Fiber, Circo says the whole application process would have been a win for the city. 

“In that waiting period, that’s when I said, ‘We’ve won,’” Circo said. “We’re now aware of this whole other industry, that is now collectively organizing, which allows you to grow more and allows us on the government side to see their needs.” 

So it was just icing on the cake when Usher first received a call from Google in Jan. 2011. After that initial phone call, plans began to take form, and a group of Googlers visited KC to get a lay of the land. It was then that Circo and Black Gilmore say they realized the full potential of Google’s Fiber mission. 

“At that point, we really did understand that Google didn’t really know what they were going to do with all of this,” Black Gilmore said. “This is one of the best companies in the entire world, we’re a part of their project and they don’t definitively know what they’re going to do.”

“From their perspective, it was like, ‘We’re going to create this environment and see what happens,’” Circo added. 

At first, Circo and the rest of KCMO’s leaders had no idea KCK also had been selected, and even when they did find out a few weeks later, Google prohibited them from talking with one another about Fiber. 

Even so, Circo says she realized the potential for a joint announcement could mean big things in terms of bridging the cities’ rivalry. 

“We were so excited because we wanted that bi-state announcement and collaboration because the border war was starting to heat up,” she said. “This would have been a really good bi-state thing.”

For both KCMO and KCK—two communities that have struggled economically for a long time, with 18.8 and 24.5 percent of its populations respectively living below the poverty line—a partnership with an organization like Google would be a game changer. From stories of state leaders poaching companies from one state to the other and tax dollars being used to attract prospective employers, Kansas City’s economic border war is no secret to those familiar with the cities’ unique bi-state community.

Almost two years ago, Overland Park, Kan., approved $65 million in bonds to attract Teva Neuroscience away from the Missouri side. Then in August 2012, in potentially the largest move, Freightquote moved 980 jobs from Lenexa, Kan., across the state line to KCMO after being approved $7 million in BUILD tax credits. And, most recently, Grantham University received PEAK incentives for moving its administrative headquarters to Kansas. 

But with Google, a new stage began for the two cities that would require cooperation across state lines in order to make the project successful. 

“It’s not clear who is weaker or stronger,” Reardon said of the two cities. “But (Google Fiber) would be a win for both communities. A win for the region.” 

While there was never an official announcement early on with the two mayors shaking hands and smiling for the cameras, both sides agree the process was a victory in that collaboration between the two states began in earnest because of Fiber.

Deploying an audacious, innovative plan

On May 17, 2011, when Google announced KCMO would join KCK as the first metro areas in the country to receive Fiber connectivity, things were already moving on the other side of the state line. But in Missouri, Google’s rollout and the process of getting Fiber to the home would look much different than it had in Kansas. 

Although the cities’ differing circumstances offered distinct case studies—ideal for Google to test its processes—KCMO’s private utilities offered its own unique set of challenges. Usher says Kansas City Power & Light Company was part of the discussions with Google early on, but negotiations with the city’s private utilities supplier was a different animal. 

“It was an infrastructure thing for us more than anything,” said Chuck Caisley (right), vice president of marketing and communications at KCP&L. “(Google Fiber) would rely on existing poles and conduits in our service territory and we have about 90 percent of that in our area.” 

For reference, Usher says that since Google’s installations began in KCMO, the tech giant has used maybe 80 of the city’s poles for installation and upward of 80,000 from KCP&L. In order to expedite the process, KCMO waived all permitting, not only for Google but also for other service providers. 

“My overall impression is that they came in asking for a lot, the world really,” Caisley said. “They described an audacious, innovative plan and they promised Internet speeds like no one has seen and deployed it like no one has seen.”

Over the next two years, that plan continued to be implemented and grew in scope as Google not only expanded its coverage area in Kansas City, but also would announce 11 other metro areas that would soon see Fiber connectivity. But even three years after Google’s initial announcement, how the cities have embraced and harnessed Fiber remains in flux.

Using the interactive timeline below, take a look at Google’s journey with Fiber and what the new technology has meant for both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. 

This is the first in a two-part series examining the impact of Google Fiber on Kansas City three years after Google’s official announcement in Kansas. The second part can be found here

Credits: City hall photo from Flickr. Joe Reardon photo by Megan Bannister. KCSV installation photo from SPN. Sly James photo from TogetherKC. Google announcement photo from Mid-America Regional Council. Rick Usher photo from LinkedIn. Chuck Caisley photo from LinkedIn



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