Taylor Kelly, a Google Fiber Space team member, left, discusses installation… (Julie Denesha/BLOOMBERG )
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Smack in the middle of the nation, this city is about as far as possible from the hubs of high-tech innovation on both coasts.
An effort last spring to excite new Web entrepreneurs in a place better known for cattle drives and barbecue sauce turned up just a dozen people.
Then Google blew into town.
The company, dominant in the virtual world, began digging actual holes in the ground and connected homes and businesses to Internet speeds 100 times faster than most Americans have ever seen.
Three months into Google’s much-publicized experiment, signs of new business life have emerged. Nick Budidharma, an 18-year-old game developer, drove with his parents from Hilton Head, S.C., to live in a “hacker home” that’s connected to Google’s Fiber broadband network. Synthia Payne uprooted from Denver and landed here to launch a start-up that aims to let musicians jam real-time online. That sleepy weekly gathering for Web entrepreneurs recently attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 260 businesspeople, investors and city officials.
Just as the move from dial-up modems to higher-speed Internet connections helped launch Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, policymakers and Google hope this next leap forward will breed a whole new slate of innovations.
The effort also is turning up the heat on cable companies, which now have to compete for consumers who can get faster speeds at lower monthly costs. Those telecom companies have begun bidding against Google to wire firms and city buildings with equally high-octane Internet.
“What Google is providing is a catalyst. This infrastructure is enormously important to create a ripple effect of entrepreneurial activity,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the Kauffman Foundation, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit that is trying to help local start-ups and officials turn around this city.
It’s an audacious and unproven experiment, the equivalent of replacing country roads with the Autobahn speedway and then assuming Formula One race cars will materialize. The question is whether it is a curiosity — a publicity stunt — or an example of what could happen around the country if more cities had access to such fast connections.
Some privacy advocates also worry that the project raises questions about how deeply Google will become entwined in its customers’ lives.
“It gives them yet another way to gather and amass information about people, to build their digital dossiers,” said John Simpson, director at the public interest group Consumer Watchdog. “They have so much data about users at their fingertips and become a magnet for government request for that information.”
But local officials think those lightning-fast Internet speeds, which allow movies to download in seconds and create picture- and sound-perfect video conference calls, will enable companies to operate more efficiently and use increased computing power to create cutting-edge technologies.
The ripples so far are small. About a dozen start-ups have launched in the first neighborhood to get Google’s 1-gigabit-per-second service. Leading economic indicators such as employment growth haven’t budged. There is a frothy excitement, but even city officials who dub the region Silicon Prairie admit it will be hard to measure how the new network will lead to economic progress other than a general sense of activity.
“This is exactly what we hoped would happen. More home-sprung businesses. More competition. In that way, Google’s project is a success already,” said Richard Usher, the assistant city manager for Kansas City, Mo. The network was initially brought to neighborhoods on the Kansas side of the city and will be in its first community on the other side of the state line this spring.
Of course, Google has much to gain if the test in Kansas City works. It won’t say how much it spent to build the network, but it wants faster speeds so consumers will search more, put more videos on YouTube and shift all e-mails and documents to its cloud system of servers. By doing so, the company gathers more data to build more complete portraits of users and boost its $37 billion business of selling customized ads.
The company is taking small steps in other regions, and this month began to offer free WiFi to the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Its chief financial officer said in an earnings conference call this week that the firm thinks its foray into telecommunications is “not a hobby” and will be a real business.
For new entrepreneurs here, Google’s motives don’t matter. The faster and cheaper service opens up opportunities.
EyeVerify, a security software firm, was in a part of the city where AT&T was the only Internet service provider, offering maximum speeds of 5 megabits per second for $80 a month.