Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

As we get closer to the federal election finish line and ponder what lies ahead for the NBN, it's easy to forget that there’s a very different discussion underway about the virtues of fibre across the Pacific. The focus is no longer on the network but outcomes.

As we get closer to the federal election finish line and ponder what lies ahead for the National Broadband Network (NBN), it's easy to forget that there’s a very different discussion underway about the virtues of fibre across the Pacific.

It’s been just over a two years since Google first rolled it’s Fiber project into the twin cities of, Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City Missouri, and the focus is no longer on the network but rather the outcomes. Google Fiber has managed to become a catalyst for the creation of community hubs which leverage new technology to create new opportunities. 

Really fast broadband is not an end itself but a means to accelerate and enable innovation.

Graph for Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

Google’s motives behind Fiber project

Opinions vary as to why Google chose to offer synchronous (same speed upload and download) internet access and cable TV services to some select cities in the USA.

One view is that the more people use the internet, the more likely they are to use Google services, click on Google ads or give Google useful data of commercial value.

Another view is that Google Fiber is a huge opt-in data gathering and data mining exercise, a handful of city size “petri dishes” which Google researchers and planners can analyse the internet usage of in detail.

Perhaps another reason is to encourage big American cable, fibre and ADSL high speed telecommunications providers to provide their customers with better speeds at a lower cost.

Community Organisations

One reason why Google selected the twin Kansas Cities revolves around the one ace the region has up its sleeve -  it’s home to the Kauffman Foundation, the world's largest organisation devoted to entrepreneurship.

Foundation run initiatives like 1 Million Cups were cited by all the local entrepreneurs I spoke with, as crucial to why they had based themselves in Kansas.

Under the stewardship of entrepreneur Matthew Marcus, Kansas City Startup Village (KCSV) started in late September 2012. At the same time another entrepreneur, Ben Barreth had decided to start a Homes for Hackers initiative by purchasing a house just down the road from Matthew’s office and started renting it out for free 3 months to promising start-ups.

Network Services Manager at Kansas City, Kansas Public Library Brig McCoy told Technology Spectator that in the 90 per cent of the neighbourhoods that opted into Google Fiber rollouts, State Government buildings such as libraries, schools, fire departments will pay no setup or operating fees for Google Fiber.

In the case of his organisation 4 out of 5 library branches will be connected.

KCSV founder Matthew sees Google Fiber as a great catalyst for positive change. However, he is critical of Google’s signup process. As it turns out, the 10 per cent or so of the households that miss out on the map correlate almost exactly with the poorest, least educated city residents. Essentially, those who stand to benefit most from the educational and other opportunities arising from the network.

Why upload speeds matter: SportsPhotos.com 

Sportsphotos.com is great example of a start-up that was initially attracted to move to Kansas City because of Google Fiber’s synchronous Gigabit speed and decided to stay here because of the unique supportive community.

Company founder Brandon Schatz was surfing the internet late at night on December 15th 2012 when he discovered a new Youtube video about Google Fiber rolling out soon in the twin Kansas Cities.

Schatz told us that time is crucial to his business’ purpose of providing a marketplace for sports photographers to sell digital photos and prints. He had calculated that the mammoth time frames it took to transfer the high resolution photos, they regularly uploaded and downloaded, would be slashed if they had an office with Google Fiber rather than the existing cable internet connection - that was much slower and far more expensive.

Graph for Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

Schatz recounted how quickly things got moving. He toured the Kansas City Startup Village on December 26.  On December 28 he gave 30 days notice to his office landlord that we would be vacating.  During January he found a home that would be getting Google Fiber soon. The company moved in on February 1 and had Google Fiber installed 3 days later.  

“We immediately got plugged into the KC startup scene by going to 1 Million Cups where we were mentioned in front of the 200 group and other entrepreneurs reached out to us in order to help,” Schatz explains.

“This connection is just like having co-located data centre latency and transfer speeds from the comfort of our home office. One of our services is for pro-photographers to ship us their photos via courier and we upload them to our site.”

“Some weekends our photographers will come back from taking photos at an event like The Color Run and have 30,000 (120GB) of competitor photos to make available for purchase on our website”.

“This massive upload usually only takes about an hour using Google Fiber. It used to take days for us to upload this amount of data so having this connectivity has given us a huge competitive edge,”

“The faster we can make the photos available the higher the chance of making sales to competitors, their friends and families while memories of an event are still fresh in their minds”.

“Without Google Fiber we would not be able to offer this service,” he says.

Impact on Real Estate

Another edge both the cities have over their Australian counterparts is affordable real estate, you can purchase a decent house for around $100,000.

Graph for Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

Local real estate agents are emphasising whether a property on their books has access to Google Fiber or not, in the hope of increased bids to lease or buy these properties, compared to properties which didn’t opt in to getting connected to Google Fiber.

A member of the local IT industry told me about an entrepreneur who was about to buy a property when he found out the existing elderly owner hadn’t paid the $10 expression of interest for getting Google Fiber. The interested buyer immediately indicated that he would purchase elsewhere.

Winning hearts & minds

An area where Australia’s NBN Co could learn from Google Fiber is how to win the hearts and minds of the community.

Some residents of the twin Kansas Cities are genuinely excited by the opportunities opened to them by Google Fiber but others are not, especially senior citizens who may not aware of how next generation internet access can be of value to them.

In this case, Google left the public in charge of the marketing, with advocates lobbying their friends and neighbours to get connected.

Graph for Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

Google has been giving away branded t-shirts with the slogan “100 times faster internet, 100 times the possibilities” as well as signs to place in front yards. These forms of marketing are a good way to spread the word and spark conversations between neighbours.

Just because Kansas was the first location for Google Fiber high speed fibre broadband to roll out doesn’t mean it will be the last. At least two more cities (Austin Texas and Provo Utah) have been announced as the next Google Fiber rollouts.

A sense of community which acts as a catalyst for ideas about how to best use the connectivity, must grow organically, it cannot be externally imposed. The twin Kansas City's are already starting too highlight how the provision of robust infrastructure kickstarts the process.

Graph for Postcards from Kansas: Google Fiber lessons for our NBN

After spending a lot of time at the Hacker House and meeting with representatives of community and business groups it’s clear that there is a palpable confidence and excitement around the fibre that is drawing entrepreneurial types to the twin Kansas City’s and is likely to keep them there.

Google declined to comment for this story, however the internet giant was happy to identify key Kansas City startup founders.