Three years after announcement, Kansas City is still figuring out Fiber

When the world jumped from dial-up to broadband, it changed the way we worked. In time, many hope Google Fiber, with Internet speed 100 times faster than current services, will do the same. But day-to-day, the implications of Google Fiber are not as great as Kansas City Startup Village co-leader Matthew Marcus says he envisioned…

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

Located just up the street from the Kansas City Startup Village, the Google Fiberspace is the tech giant’s outward facing hub for Fiber activity and community connection. 

When the world jumped from dial-up to broadband, it changed the way we worked. In time, many hope Google Fiber, with Internet speed 100 times faster than current services, will do the same.

But day-to-day, the implications of Google Fiber are not as great as Kansas City Startup Village co-leader Matthew Marcus says he envisioned. 

“I think because the concepts of our business, and this rings true for a lot of startups in the Village, never relied on Google Fiber or were ideated before Fiber was a sparkle in KC’s eye…it wasn’t really a game changer for us.”

There have been benefits, though. Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James says he enjoys more seamless Netflix streaming while others are pointing to quicker upload speeds and seamless video chatting. Everything is faster, which makes everything more efficient. 

And then there are some true eye-catching, game changers.

For 13-year-old Nick LeGrande, a KCMO boy with a rare blood disorder, Google Fiber and the power of robotics, meant he was able to return to his passion for baseball and throw out the first pitch remotely from the Google Fiberspace in KCMO. A robotic arm then threw the same pitch in real time at an Oakland A’s game in Oakland, Calif.

And for presenters using SightDeck, a virtual presentation company headquartered in KCMO’s Union Station, Fiber means the ability to have presenters in two different locations appear on the same screen or manipulating presentation elements in real time. 

When it comes down to it, many Kansas City leaders say it’s still too early in Google’s grand experiment to point to tangible, everyday uses of the gig.

“People have such high expectations of what outcomes should be in such a short period of time,” said Aaron Deacon of KC Digital Drive, a group trying to harness Fiber and help make KC a thought leader in the digital revolution. “This isn’t a magic bullet that solves everything, but it is the way the world is changing. 

“There’s lots of use cases…Do they look as innovative as flying cars? No. But for some people, Fiber is integral to their lives and businesses.”

Slow and steady

An interactive map on Google Fiber’s website shows the rollout areas in KCK and KCMO. 

More than a year and a half since Google Fiber’s first installation in Kansas City, many are still waiting for their ultra-high-speed connection to be flipped on. In KCK and KCMO proper, registration is no longer open for Google Fiber, but that doesn’t mean installations are complete. 

In KCK, Google Fiber’s website lists only six neighborhoods where construction is taking place and four where sign-up goals have not yet been met. 

In KCMO, which had its first installation in the spring of 2013, more than 35 neighborhoods are still listed as under construction, with about half as many that still have not met registration quotas. 

The city has pulled more than 37,000 permits for Fiber work, according to the Kansas City Star, and in KCMO alone, more than 1,000 contractors are working daily to connect neighborhoods. 

In the cities’ outlying areas—like Missouri’s South Kansas City, KC Northwest and KC Northeast—where Fiber connections are just beginning to crop up, registration deadlines are swiftly approaching.

It’s hard to say exactly how many people have subscribed to Google Fiber in Kansas City—Google hasn’t released the numbers. But KCMO has tried to do its own deductive research by using 2010 census data to calculate the number of potential households in the rollout area. 

Assistant City Manager Rick Usher admits its wildly imprecise, but it’s the best they’ve got. 

More than 96,604 households—representing 178,420 residents—are located in Google’s Fiberhoods, according to data compiled by KCMO in 2010. The number of actual Fiber signups is likely much, much smaller—more than 37,000 of those households were apartment buildings where owners must first sign on for residents to have Fiber. Not many apartment owners have signed on because of the initial construction costs, Usher said.

Although Fiber hasn’t reached its full-city potential, Google’s ultra-high-speed connectivity has already begun to affect KC’s economy and attitude. 

“I don’t know if I can quantify Google Fiber in dollars and cents,” James said. “But I can quantify it in attitude and that attitude has changed 180 degrees in this time, simply because now people are not afraid to say Kansas City is innovative.”

Former KCK Mayor Joe Reardon says there’s anecdotal evidence that homes with Fiber are valued more than those without, and Google agrees. During its July 2012 launch announcement, Google cited studies that show a direct fiberoptic connection to the home improving home values by $2,000-$5,0000. 

With higher home values come higher tax valuations and more tax revenue for the city, he said. It’s brought hundreds, even thousands of contract jobs for workers installing Fiber. While many contractors are not local companies, contractors are spending dollars in KC when they work.

In terms of other tangible, monetary outcomes though, many believe it’s still too early in the lifecycle of Google Fiber to provide any real data. 

Community innovation on the gig

Along with rising home values comes entrepreneurs’ interest in real estate on both sides of the state line, including startup leader Brad Feld’s purchase of a home in Hanover Heights, Kan., last February, largely because of Google Fiber. 

“There’s always been an entrepreneurial startup community around, but this was a defining moment that unlocked it in a special way,” Reardon said of Fiber’s impact.

The Kansas City Startup Village, a collection of about 25 startups in a few block radius, has blossomed and prospered in many ways because its neighborhood was the first to be connected to Fiber. While Google is a vibrant feather in KC’s cap, the majority of the city’s entrepreneurs still haven’t quite figured out how to best harness its power.  

“We tried to break the gig (upload/download speeds),” Marcus said. “We literally tried and the computer crashed. It was a gaming machine and it crashed before we could come close to breaking a gig.”

While entrepreneurs may not be maxing out Google Fiber’s connection day in and day out, some startups have found ways to use it for greater efficiency.

For founder and CEO Brandon Schatz, Fiber has meant the ability to exponentially increase efficiency and grow his company more quickly. manages, organizes and helps photographer sell photos from athletic events like 5K runs or high school football games. The company’s business model, which uploads hundreds of photos per event, relies on a fast Internet connection. 

“We couldn’t scale,” Schatz (left) said. “We started taking on large volumes of photos and we’d always looked at the Internet connection as being a bottleneck.”

That is, until Schatz got wind of Google Fiber, scheduled a tour of KCSV and moved from Springfield, Mo., to the Village about a year ago. 

In Springfield, Schatz says he was paying more than $400 a month for an Internet connection with the bandwidth to support his startup’s needs. Now, Schatz says a batch of photos that once took 30 or 40 hours to upload is done in 30 minutes—and at a fraction, just $70 per month, of the price—thanks to Google Fiber.

On Internet alone, the move will save him nearly $4,000 a year.

But Schatz says he has more than faster Internet to thank for his startup’s ability to grow and succeed. The startup community that straddles the state line was created around Fiber’s beginnings and the collective experience there has been invaluable.

“(Entrepreneurs) have rallied around Google Fiber really well,” Schatz said. “We’ve created a whole startup community in this area and what’s awesome about that is the group and their resources come to you instead of being out there on your own. The Fiber is nice, but the community is awesome. Fiber was a huge catalyst to getting people excited about moving into this neighborhood.”

Google Fiber has drawn other companies—like Boston-based Handprint—from outside of the region to the area as well, attracted to KCSV for its fast Internet speeds and close-knit cluster of companies. 

Originally staying in Ben Barreth’s Home for Hackers, Handprint co-founder Mike Demarais relocated the rest of his team to KCK when they won Feld’s Fiberhouse contest. Now, almost a year later, the 3D printing startup’s tenure in the house is ending and they’ve received support from KC’s Digital Sandbox

Handprint’s story is just one of many who have decided to take a chance on Kansas City because of Google Fiber, but Marcus (right) believes what truly entices KC transplants to stay is the city’s startup community. 

“The fact is, we did gravitate to be really close to one another, and while some people came because of Fiber, what they stayed for and what they really appreciated in the long run was the community nature of KCSV,” he said. 

Fiber also has brought both city’s governments together.

Since James and Reardon joined forces through the Mayors’ Bistate Innovation Team—a group created to help KCK and KCMO best utilize the powers of an-ultra high-speed Internet connection—James says the conversation on collaboration has continued past the initial project. 

“All of these things have come about, in some sense, from the relationship we built over Google,” he said. “It wasn’t there before and Google was the subject that allowed us to start the conversations.”

Those projects include everything from economic development talks to the attraction of the 2016 Republican National Convention to KC, and Reardon echoes in his feelings that collaboration on this level has never existed before. 

On both sides, Marcus says Fiber has been a lightening rod for momentum and energy in the community, something that may have been lacking previously. 

“I think Google Fiber, in essence, is an inspiration,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I might not have an app or service or product that uses it,’ but just being around it is cool and inspires me to want to do cool, great things. I think that plays into some of the entrepreneurs’ energy. It’s a catalyst to other things, to bigger ideas.”

But for some in the community, “bigger ideas” won’t happen until they have the basics many take for granted—access to the Internet. 

Bridging the digital divide

For nearly a decade, students in urban KCK schools have had laptops available to them. But many Macbook Airs issued as learning tools in the city’s connected classrooms turn into a brick at home. 

While Google Fiber has been widely publicized for its breakthrough speed—often 100 times faster than typical at-home Internet—it also has helped bring connectivity to homes on both sides of the state line that may have not previously been able to afford the connection. 

“It’s nice for them to have it in schools, but if (students’) neighborhoods aren’t wired and connected then what damn good does a computer or iPad do them if they can’t go online,” James (left) said. “It’s just a heavy, nice-looking, glass-covered paperweight. That doesn’t do those kids any good.”

While Kansas City has long been home to diverse economic backgrounds, the advent of the Internet and economic barrier to technology has only helped create a large and very real digital divide. 

“Until we came face to face with it through Google, I don’t remember it being addressed at all,” James said. “It’s forcing us to understand that we have to take broader approaches to reach everybody.”

Although Kansas City is just beginning to address the issue, the digital divide is a phenomenon that exists on a national and global, scale. The U.S. Department of Commerce first published findings on the digital divide in 1995, noting the stark chasm in race, economic class and geographic location for those who are online and those who aren’t. 

In 2010, 4 out of 10 U.S. households making less than $25,000 reported having wired Internet access at home, according to a June 2013 report by the Department of Commerce. That number comes in stark contrast to the 93 percent of households with an income exceeding $100,000 that report at-home connectivity. 

Race also proved a factor in the creation of a digital divide—less than 60 percent of all African American (55 percent) and Hispanic (57 percent) households have Internet access at home, where 72 percent of white families report in-home access, according to the Department of Commerce.

A KCK School District study found only 40 percent of its students have an at-home Internet connection to use with school-issued computers. In KCMO’s public schools, an estimated 30 percent of students have Internet access at home. James says some students resort to doing their homework at McDonald’s because of the free WiFi.

There are some who believe Fiber may help bridge the divide, but still, others argue it may only create an even wider gap.

One of the ways Google has approached the divide is through its “free” Internet package, with 5MB download and 1MB upload speeds. In terms of month-to-month payment, Fiber offers a “free” plan—homeowners only pay additional taxes or fees, usually about $2.13 per month on top of Fiber’s construction fee—for up to seven years. 

After paying the $300 construction fee in full, or in $25 installments over 12 months, families that otherwise may have never seen in-home Internet now have the web at their fingertips.

But the model isn’t perfect, says Michael Liimatta, president of Connecting for Good, a nonprofit organization that focuses on bridging the digital divide in Kansas City.

“Fiber made us dream of better connectivity and what it would mean for families in poverty, but what Fiber did to close the divide was highlight the problem. It put the problem in front of people’s faces.”

Liimatta has found that not too many families who didn’t have Internet before do so now because of Google Fiber. 

The free Internet plan is a good one—that is, if you own a home and are staying put for a while. But in low-income neighborhoods, Liimatta (right) says people typically rent and are very transient, so it doesn’t make sense to wire their homes. 

Landlords of low-income apartments aren’t likely to pay for the construction fee, either, he said. Even for a small 20-unit complex, Fiber’s free Internet would cost the building owner $6,000, Liimatta said. And since owners of low-income housing don’t feel they can raise monthly rent any higher, Google’s connection doesn’t provide owners any more value. 

In 2012, Liimatta hoped to remedy that problem by building community wireless networks that would spread across neighborhoods to reach low-income residents, but the WiFi co-op plan went against Google’s household licensing arrangements.

“We remain deeply concerned about those who are likely be left out of the impact Google Fiber will have on Kansas City,” reads a July 2012 Connecting for Good blog post. “In actuality, the people we are trying to reach with free or low-cost Wi-Fi are not going to be Fiber customers—at least not yet. If we get them engaged with life online as we hope to, they certainly could get to the point where it would make sense for them one day.” 

Liimatta hopes the future will bring more solutions to KC’s digital divide. 

“The buzz around Fiber, and some of their own research, resulted in a lot of talk about the digital divide,” Liimatta said. “When you have the possibility of Internet that’s 100 times faster than what we have, that’s 100 times the possibility for those using it… For those that have no Internet, it’s 100 times the possibility up from zero.”

“We’re in the middle of an experiment”

Over the last year Fiber’s exclusivity has expanded beyond Kansas City. On April 9, 2013, Google announced Austin, Texas, as the nation’s second Fiber City. A week later, the tech giant purchased Provo, Utah’s existing fiber-optic network for $1, making the Silicon Hills the third region with Google Fiber.  

In February, Google announced it will consider nine new metro areas—34 cities total—for Fiber connectivity. 

And instead of letting each new city figure it out for themselves as Kansas City had to, KCMO officials say they’re happy to lend a seasoned hand. 

“I feel a little bit of responsibility being first to document as much as we can, not just because we’re first, but so others can learn from it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo (left). 

“I think that it would be wasted to go through this experience and not let anybody know the mistakes we’ve made and the successes we’re seeing. We’re in the middle of an experiment and we need to document it.” 

Circo says KCMO’s leaders have already spoken to local governments and Fiber advocates from other communities to help them prepare for discussions with Google. 

Upon its announcement last month, Google provided the nine new communities with a Google Fiber checklist to help guide their preparations over the coming months. Each city has until May 1 to respond to the checklist items—which include providing access to existing infrastructure and permit applications for Google’s review—before Google spends the remainder of 2014 evaluating the cities’ responses. 

Usher says the checklist would have been invaluable in preparing for Google, but then again, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Google’s experiences with Kansas City helped create the document in the first place.

Still other tech hubs, like Seattle and California, haven’t made the cut for everything from political squabbling to disputes over rollout restrictions. With more Fiber Cities cropping up around the country, Reardon doesn’t think KC will become any less special. In fact, he believes with more cities connected will come better uses.

“There’s tangible evidence of connectivity to data being fundamentally important for the quality of life for citizens now and in the future,” Reardon said. “Going forward, those who have access to that in more robust ways will open up things quicker to their communities in ways that other communities will not.” 

Deacon, one of the thought leaders trying to come up with innovative uses for Fiber, said it’s not always fun to be the guinea pig, but that ultimately the opportunity was worth it.

“It’s certainly catalyzed a lot of activity here even before the Fiber was laid,” he said.

A group effort to find Fiber uses

A hundred-plus educators and techies gathered on Feb. 13 for Mozilla’s Gigabit City 2.0 event at the KC Public Library where they brainstormed ideas to use Fiber in the classroom. More than $150,000 worth of grants will help execute the best ideas.

Three years after Google’s announcement, most say KC hasn’t hit its full stride with Google Fiber, but initiatives from many angles and organizations are harnessing the city’s energy to create uses that matter. 

So much so that when one Georgia resident, who lives in a city applying for Fiber, asked on Reddit what KC has used Fiber for, there were genuine answers and one snarky one that may say it all: “Google Fiber has created a new industry in Kansas City. This new industry focuses on creating events where residents brainstorm about uses for Google Fiber.”

Marcus says the response is spot on and he’d like to see KC do less talking and more doing. 

“It’s frustrating to me,” he said. “Austin will get it this year…Are they going to be the first ones to do something big? Will we be sitting in shadows and saying…‘Yeah, well, we had it first!’?

“I want KC to create a technology or purpose that, once the switch is flipped in Austin, Provo and other cities, it would be something that could be used immediately and has value.”

James agrees. He said the community’s leaders can’t just expect things to happen—decisive action needs to be taken to help continue growth. 

“There are some things that I expect to grow organically, but I don’t think you ever plant a garden and say, ‘Whatever grows, grows,’” he said. “I think you have to be fairly purposeful about it.”

One of the ways government leaders on both sides of the state line have been intentional about Fiber is through the continuation of the Mayors’ Bistate Innovation Team. The group has since morphed into KC Digital Drive, which has already put down groundwork, from creating innovation teams at local schools to fostering a Hacker House.

Deacon says there is a bright future with Fiber, but it will take time to grow.

“I think people get caught in a ‘We can do this already’ mindset where we can already Skype or Hangout right now, but right now most people would choose to meet in person if possible,” he said. “But there’s a scale of it getting better to the point where it’s seamless…and a lot of that is because of restrictions imposed by bandwidth right now.

“Once more people get it—I think less than 200,000 people have a Gigabit in the home—you’re going to see a lot more people building useful products. Right now there’s just not that big of market.”

One of those efforts to make use of Fiber is Mozilla’s Gigabit City 2.0 Challenge. The software company is hoping to pair techies and educators to take advantage of the Gig in the classroom. But why would Mozilla, which makes Firefox, work on a Google Fiber project?

Kari Keefe, the lead organizer in KC’s branch of the Mozilla Gigabit Fund, said education and open Internet has always been a core mission for the software company. 

The fund will give $150,000 in grants to support development and experimentation with Fiber in education and workforce development, and will support a 12-week pilot periods where up to 10 projects will be awarded between $5,000 and $30,000. Resources will be directed to projects with real potential to impact the community. 

By mid-April, the judges will whittle the competition’s 22 submissions down to 10. Mozilla’s project also is being carried out in another Gigabit city—Chattanooga, Tenn. 

Deacon said he doesn’t see a downside to being first with Fiber. In 2025, he says it won’t matter if KC was the first or in the first 20 cities, because either way the city will still have a competitive advantage.

Some people are frustrated with the progress, but Mike Brown (left) of Brainzooming, who helped author an extensive Google Fiber roadmap, said the slow-moving process is all part of being at the forefront of something new. 

“When they built the Transcontinental Railroad, did they think of what it would do to a city in Colorado? No. But 150 years later, if we didn’t build it then, we wouldn’t have interstate travel,” he said, comparing it to KC’s situation. “It’s easy to sit on the sideline and complain about how it’s not moving in a smooth, linear direction. 

“This is the frontier—it’s moving in chunks. Some here. Some over there.”

Ultimately Brown believes they’ll find the path.

And for KCK’s former mayor, the advantage of being the first city in the nation with Google Fiber isn’t an accolade he believes will fade with time. 

“KCK is still on the cutting edge,” Reardon said. “There will be a maturity to the system and we’ll always be ahead of everyone else in that respect. 

“So I think you’ll be looking to Kansas City (as a Fiber leader) for quite some time.”

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

Credits: Google Fiberspace photo by UCFFool. Fiber map from Google Fiber’s website. Brandon Schatz photo from Matthew Marcus photo courtesy of Marcus. Sly James photo from TogetherKCMichael Liimatta photo from Google+. Cindy Circo photo from KCMO. Mike Brown photo from Brainzooming. 


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