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In Kansas City, Google Fiber has mixed results

Almost five years since super-fast Google Fiber internet came to town, KC is a tech hub on the rise

TommyBrison / Shutterstock.com

Normally, internet installation doesn’t warrant a worldwide press event.

But in 2012, when Matthew Marcus, current executive director of the Kansas City Startup Foundation, had his home wired for Google Fiber, one of the first places in the world the internet giant was unveiling its revolutionary 1-gigabit internet connection, the service call became a media frenzy.

“We were mesmerized by what they were doing,” he says. “When they connected, we literally went from 4G wireless to 1,000 megabits. The difference was night and day; we even filmed speed tests for YouTube, which we called Fiber Fridays.”

Like his colleagues, Marcus was thrilled Google had chosen Kansas City for the trial. He was working out of the Kansas City Startup Village, an entrepreneur-led community of small companies working out of a network of converted homes.

Like others in the tech industry, he was thrilled by the promise of Google’s foray into lightning-fast broadband. When the internet giant announced its intentions and put out an open call for cities to apply for Fiber, more than 1,000 responded. State rival Topeka even temporarily changed its name to Google. Anything, the thinking went, to get in on what was sure to be a huge economic boost.

Google Fiber Installation in Kansas City
Matthew Marcus during Google Fiber installation at his home in 2012.
Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images

Nearly five years later, Kansas City’s tech scene continues to expand, posting five straight years of job growth, according to research by CompTIA, an IT trade association. And while residents, the tech community, and nonprofits working on bridging the digital divide feel Fiber has been a boon to the city, the relationship between high-speed internet access and the tech scene’s good fortunes isn’t completely cut-and-dry.

“Fiber has changed the perception of Kansas City as a tech center,” says Tim Cowden, CEO of Kansas City Area Development Council. “Just think about it: The power of Google’s brand is as far-reaching as any brand in the world. When a brand like that selects your marketplace to make an investment, it’s validation.”

In an increasingly digital economy, high-speed internet access isn’t just a utility, it’s in many ways a prerequisite, providing a huge economic boost to new industries, while hampering job searches by households without access, according to a report from the national Council of Economic Advisors.

And with just 67 percent of the country equipped with home broadband access, according to the Pew Research Center, and 13 percent with mobile-only internet access, there’s urgent need to improve access in low-income communities already suffering from a lack of investment.

Google chose Kansas City for the Fiber trial in 2011 for three reasons, according to Google Fiber Representative and Community Impact Manager Rachel Merlo. It had the right infrastructure and a collaborative partner in city hall; deep roots in education, health care, technology, and entrepreneurship; and it was a diverse city.

It also had the same persistent digital divide that plagued other cities, and was limiting job opportunities and social mobility for lower-income residents. According to early surveys taken by Google, 25 percent of Kansas City’s populace reported that it didn’t have access to high-speed broadband access at home, and 17 percent reported not using the internet at home.

“Fiber was an opportunity to change the web and make it faster and make it abundant, but it also allowed us to look at how to get more folks online and address the digital divide,” says Merlo.

Fiber’s introduction made an impact immediately. At the time, it was up to 100 times faster than broadband service being sold by competitors such as Time Warner, Comcast, and AT&T U-Verse (which have all since introduced higher-speed options to compete). Full-length movies could be downloaded in a matter of minutes.

Fiber’s fast speeds also made a difference to the business community, especially after the company introduced a small business option in 2015. Small businesses and contractors, especially in the film, design, and photo industries, have benefitted from fast upload speeds that shave hours off extensive uploads. According to Michelle Cormack, a senior technical recruiter at Garmin, the mapping technology firm based in Kansas City, Fiber is a big part of her pitch to prospective employees.

Fiber has also helped expand access to residents who didn’t have or couldn’t afford a home connection. Ron Farmer, vice president and co-founder of CHES, a local nonprofit that helps low-income families with homeownership, says Google has been very involved, and has done a great job in helping the community.

The digital divide is a big issue, and access to the internet gives families new access to banking resources and nonprofits, which aren’t always open or accessible outside of business hours. Homes with internet access have a much greater rate of financial success, he says, and the impact will “be felt through generations.”

Since Fiber announced a series of more affordable, lower-speed options, including a $15-a-month broadband connection, internet adoption has risen, according to Merlo, and Google has also partnered with HUD to wire select housing projects. The latest data from the most recent American Community Survey shows a 6 percent year-over-year jump in adoption between 2014 and 2015, mostly attributable to fiber-optic connections.

“It’s nice to see that we’ve had an impact on the community,” she says. “We wanted to make sure this wasn’t the kind of situation where, five years later, reporters were asking. ‘What happened?’”

Fiber’s impact on the tech community is significant, according to many, but it was more of a catalyst that sped along developments already in progress. Since other cities have, or will soon receive, similar service from the internet giant, Kansas City needs to grab the spotlight by its own accord.

“The sex appeal of Google Fiber has diminished, to some degree,” says Marcus. “Thankfully, the KC tech ecosystem is advanced enough that if they shut off Google Fiber tomorrow, the ecosystem would still continue to grow.”

In some ways, being the first to be plugged in was a disadvantage. Since nobody else had those speeds in the U.S., nobody developed a service, or killer app, that would have driven more consumers to sign up. Many have said that speed is a big plus, but that tangible benefits, or new business models, are still being figured out.

Fiber has had a rough year, with CEO Craig Barratt stepping down, and numerous reports about the service curtailing its expansion plans in light of low subscription numbers, and experimenting with wireless distribution networks because cable networks have proven to be very capital intensive (Google wouldn’t release subscription numbers or the amount of money it had invested in Kansas City).

Merlo says Google remains committed to Kansas City, and continuing to expand into new parts of the metro area and bridge the digital divide. “We’re all in and committed to work here,” she says.

While Fiber has given the city a boost, the new focus is on using its newfound prominence to attract talent, and develop its smart city capabilities.

After competing in the Smart City Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city has announced its own bid to be the city of the future, a collaboration with Cisco, Sprint, and others to create a Smart CIty Corridor, with high-tech info kiosks and smart streetlights along its new streetcar line.

According to Ryan Weber, president of the Kansas City Tech Council, Kansas City has climbed up the list of top tech hubs in the U.S., boasting household tech firms such as Sprint and Garmin. Fiber gave the city a chance to tell its story, alongside Google’s. Now that it has an audience, it needs to write a follow-up.

“Young people are choosing a city first, then a company, then a job,” he says. “As our stock continues to rise, I think we’ll be a great draw. We need to be considered a top draw for tech talent in the Midwest.”