Kansas City’s Google Puzzle

Kansas City’s gigabit Internet experiment finally starts to take shape. Who benefits?

When Nick Budidharma wanted to launch a business based on his idea for an online gaming server, he didn’t head to California’s Silicon Valley or another traditional tech hot spot. Instead he set out for Kansas City, taking advantage of super-fast fiber connectivity being installed by Google and new local programs designed to build companies around those broadband resources.

Budidharma, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Hilton Head Island, S.C., moved into a five-bedroom “hacker home” last winter, sharing the space with several other aspiring entrepreneurs. After spending three months rent-free in the house, Budidharma launched his company, LeetNode, with the help of local Web developer Ben Barreth. Now he plans to spend another year in the area—living in another entrepreneurial test tube environment called the KC Startup Village—while working on a second Internet-based startup.

The Bid for the Google Fiber Test Bed

Budidharma’s experience may have been just what Kansas City leaders had in mind when they made a bid for Google Fiber several years ago. Kansas City, Kan. Mayor and CEO Joe Reardon led efforts to become a test bed for Google’s gigabit fiber-to-the-home Internet service. Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Sly James then partnered with Reardon to extend the network across the state line. The region was among more than 1,000 communities competing for a chance to become home to the super-fast network. Google chose Kansas City for the project in 2011 and began installing the fiber network last year.

Click here to see which neighborhoods in Kansas City are currently eligible for Google Fiber.

Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS Stand to Benefit From Google Fiber

Reardon says he quickly realized that the fiber project would achieve a “deeper level of success” as a regional initiative. Reardon added that he and James had been in talks about the fiber project before James was elected in 2011. The partnership meant that the cities could work together to achieve the same goal.

“With ultra-high-speed fiber, if there’s a real value to it, you don’t just want it in one city,” Reardon says. “You want it to be in a lot of cities.”

As a result, the bordering cities have been introduced to Internet access with speed that is considered to be unprecedented anywhere in the U.S. Google says the new network offers connection speeds that are 100 times faster than what’s currently available in most U.S. communities.

The new fiber access has spurred a modern day Gold Rush for hackers and entrepreneurs to flock to the city with hopes of jump-starting new businesses that can use the fiber network. “When Google came, it was kind of like we got this fantastic puzzle, but it had no picture on the box to tell us what it should look like when it’s done,” James says. “So we get to decide what it looks like when it’s done.”

Since the rollout began, hacker communities have cropped up in neighborhoods already connected to the fiber network. “There are a lot of creative thinkers out there who are really looking forward to leveraging this on a small scale and a large scale,” says Ashley Z. Hand, the chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo. “I think we’re going to see new business ideas and connections from Kansas City to the rest of the world as a result of this technology coming here.”

As of late March, two Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods were being linked to the network. Another six neighborhoods were slated to begin the process in April. On the Kansas side, seven neighborhoods are undergoing installation and connection work, and three more will start this summer. Ultimately, Google expects to hook up 180 neighborhoods — dubbed “fiberhoods” — to the network.

Although the project focuses on fiber in the home, Kansas City government facilities will receive a slice of the gigabit pie, too. Mary J. Miller, CIO of Kansas City, Mo., said the Google partnership will link 300 city buildings to the network. Miller says the new connectivity will improve city services in areas like medical emergency response and public works.

“When [medical emergency personnel] are out there working at an accident, hopefully with this gigabit of data, they can take a picture, send it back to an emergency room and get a response,” she says.

This article was originally featured in Government Technology Magazine.