Expanding Googleville

KC goes high-fiber with an exclusive Google Fiber deal for insanely high-speed connections, but at what cost? Frank Cook assesses the local tech landscape and the reality behind the hype.

   The four most important things you need to know about Google Fiber are: One, you can get it and the Kardashians can’t–at least not yet. Think bragging rights everywhere you go. Two, you probably don’t need it. But maybe you do. Three, it’s all, well mostly, about the future. And four, yes, that’s their customer center at Westport Road and State Line Road. It just looks like a furniture store. Don’t miss the shuttlecock light hanging from ceiling. “It’s supposed to remind you of the Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery. See, we’re local,” said the guy, showing me around.

   Going back to No. 1. We all know by now that Kansas City earned a forever spot on the “History of the Internet” tour in 2012 by becoming the first city to roll out Google Fiber, a high-speed fiber optic network that connects our homes and businesses to the world, and the world to our homes and businesses.

   “Fiber optic” refers to a cable bundle of tiny glass strands that carry coded bits of information that move at the speed of light, which is very quick. Alternatively, the cable that most of us have that brings TV and Internet into our homes is a coaxial cable, which is basically a thick, insulated copper wire. It’s quick but not as quick as light.

   In kind of a patchwork fashion, Google has laid some 7,000 miles of fiber optic lines all over the Kansas City area and a small but growing number of homes and businesses now have service. Most of those areas are downtown, a little bit in the north, but the company is now pushing hard to bring its “fiberhoods” deep into Overland Park and the rest of southern Johnson County.

   How exclusive are we? To get Google Fiber anywhere else in the world you’d have to move to Austin, Texas, or Provo, Utah – and both of them are way behind Kansas City in building out the infrastructure.

That means Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kendall and Kylie (and the brother, whatever his name is) won’t be able to get it for years. Not your relatives in Chicago, nor your grandparents in Arizona. Not Steve Spielberg in Hollywood or Barack Obama in Washington. Probably not Bill Gates, either, but who really knows.

   Right now, it’s all us.

   Feel free to brag while you can.

Do you really need more fiber?

   That question is actually more about who you are than what Google Fiber is.

   If you have a house in Overland Park occupied by you, your spouse and a couple of kids, then you probably have a desktop computer in the den, there’s a laptop in the kitchen, the kids have notebooks and tablets, everybody has a phone, there are two or three televisions scattered around and more than likely an Xbox or PlayStation.

   And you probably have a cable TV-phone-Internet connection that’s offering you download speeds of maybe 50 megabits per second, and maybe upload speeds of about half that.

   Odds are, most of the time you’re pretty happy with that arrangement. If you’re streaming music or downloading video, you may occasionally get some buffering (everything stops so your computer can catch its breath, then starts again). But if Susie is watching a movie on her tablet, Bobby is on the Xbox, Dad is updating his LinkedIn profile and Mom is trying to upload a spreadsheet to the office, you may see that 50 megabits per second drop to 10, and it could even drop down to 1.5 or 2 – which is aggravatingly slow.

   And remember, a lot of other people in your neighborhood, and their kids, are sharing the same network you are, and at the same time.

   OK, so what’s Google Fiber?

   “Take that same house in Overland Park,” says Matthew Marcus, co-leader of downtown’s high-tech commune KC Startup Village (you read about him in our November 2014 issue). “And let’s say you want to put in a swimming pool in the backyard. You can put in a nice backyard pool, OR …

   “You can put in an Olympic-size, eight-lane pool with a water slide, multiple diving boards at different heights, and those two-step ladders all around the sides. That’s overkill – but in a good way,” Marcus says. “That’s Google Fiber.”

   By the numbers, Google Fiber offers a gigabit of upload and download speed — that’s 1,000 megabits. “And that’s more than any family needs. You’d never use that much. Most businesses would never come near needing that much bandwidth ...”

   Then Marcus adds that fateful word, “…today.”

The day after “today,” who knows?

   Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses.’”

   When the industrialist formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903, nobody really knew what an automobile could do for them. Google Fiber is sailing in those same unchartered waters now.

   Says the guy at the Google customer center, “That’s the beauty of it. We don’t tell you where to go, we’re just building a really fast highway that will get you there.” 

   Back to Marcus, “Google is pushing the envelope. That’s what Google is good at. The cable companies – Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T, and the Dish service – they are serving consumers at speeds that work for us now.

   “But Google is betting the status quo isn’t going to last much longer. Google Fiber is trying to figure out where things are going to be five years from now. It believes there are going to be more applications that need more bandwidth.”

   Key players, so to speak, who are incredibly focused on the need for speed are online gaming companies around the world (but principally in the United States and Japan) that are producing ever more elaborate worlds for gamers to conquer and become lost in.

   “There is a company in Japan that is moving an online gaming platform to the cloud,” Marcus said. “That means you won’t need an Xbox or a PlayStation console to play the next generation of games. All you’ll need is a controller.

   “But to be successful, you’ll need exceptional broadband space and speed to push ones and zeros back and forth very fast. These guys [today’s cable providers] won’t be able to produce those kinds of speeds, but Google Fiber can.”

And you can get it at Starbucks – free of charge.

   For a good, if somewhat bland, look at what Google Fiber can do for you, head downtown to the Starbucks at 41st and Main and grab a gigabit with your GrandeThat Starbucks can brag it is the first in the world to have a direct link to the Internet via Google Fiber. Lots of Starbucks have Wi-Fi via Google, but this one is the first with Google Fiber.

   What you’ll see there are tables usually packed with UMKC students and young professionals, sitting around in dead silence, laptops and tablets running, ear buds firmly secured, staring into their screens and neither talking to nor even noticing anyone around them.

   Most of the noise in the place is coming from people ordering at the counter–not much chatter otherwise.

  The baristas say this Starbucks location is always pretty busy, but, yes, they believe it’s even busier since Google Fiber arrived. They can also point out a few frequent customers who spend hours in the store, turning Starbucks into their branch office.

   As expected, Google Fiber’s competitors have ramped up their efforts to block, or at least slow, the spread of Googleville – and ultimately, price may be a determining factor.

   Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Direct TV all are offering deals that package faster speeds with more services. Also, Consolidated Communications (formerly SureWest) in the Kansas City area offers fiber optic connections with the same insane speeds as Google Fiber.

  Google packages start around $100 and go up. Competitors offer slower speeds at lower prices, but some of those packages also include speeds of 100 megabits.

  When weighing your options, don’t forget county taxes and municipal fees can substantially push up the amount you actually pay.

    The problem facing Google Fiber, however, is getting enough signups to make it worthwhile for them to come into your neighborhood.

   Since ramping up its marketing a year ago, Google Fiber has hosted “Fiberfairs” and had booths at community events around the city, all while negotiating with municipal leaders over construction easements, fees and taxes.

   If enough neighbors sign up for Google Fiber and everything else can be worked out, then you can expect one of those colorful vans, with the pink and blue bunny on it, to start showing up in your community. If there aren’t enough signups, Google Fiber will pass you by – and may not be back for months or even years.

   Again, however, the question is not what Google Fiber can offer, but what kind of service do you need? And at what price?

   If you need to be on the cutting edge, or just need to be ahead of the Kardashians, Google Fiber might just be your platform.