Broadband Land

Kansas City Was First to Embrace Google Fiber, Now Its Broadband Future Is 'TBD'

The dream of a fully-connected gig city may never come to be.

Kaleigh Rogers

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Broadband Land is an ongoing Motherboard series about the digital divide in America. Follow along here .

The shared interests of Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, pretty much start and end with the Royals. The cities, which straddle the state line, have often served as a microcosm for the two states' longstanding sports and economic rivalries. But when the opportunity arose in 2011 to become the first community to pilot Google Fiber, the two cities put aside differences to reel Google in.

Now, five years after hooking up its first Kansas City customers, expansion of Google Fiber—the tech giant's foray into internet service provision, offering gigabit per second download and upload speeds—has come to a screeching halt.

Thousands of customers in KC who had pre-registered for guaranteed service when Fiber made it to their neighborhood were given their money back earlier this year, and told they may never get hooked up. Fiber cycled through two CEOs in the last 10 months, lost multiple executives, and has started laying off employees. Plans to expand Fiber to eight other American cities halted late last year, leaving the fate of the project up in the air. I recently asked Rachel Hack Merlo, the Community Impact Manager for Google Fiber in Kansas City, about the future of the expanding the project service there, and she told me it was "TBD."

Kansas City expected to become Google's glittering example of a futuristic gig-city: Half a decade later, there are examples of how Fiber benefitted KC, and stories about how it fell short. Thousands of customers will likely never get the chance to access the infrastructure they rallied behind, and many communities are still without any broadband access at all. Many are now left wondering: is that it?

"We were saying that in all likelihood this is too good to be true," said Isaac Wilder, co-founder of the Free Network Foundation and a Kansas City native. A few years ago, after Motherboard first met Wilder in New York City during Occupy Wall Street protests, he and the FNF partnered with a non-profit organization to set up free community mesh networks in low-income neighborhoods around KC.

"Lo and behold, just a few years later and it's beginning to become clear that [Google Fiber] was just a lot of lip service," Wilder told me.

When Google zeroed in on Kansas City, there was so much hype that no one seemed to consider whether this was a good financial deal for the city, Wilder said. The city agreed to waive millions of dollars in right-of-way fees to allow Google to start laying fiber in the city, for example.

But Google also made an effort to address the digital divide in Kansas City, said Carrie Coogan, director of public affairs for the KC public library, and the chair of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion. With Fiber, Google offered broadband for free to residents in affordable housing, and created a digital inclusion fellowship.

"[The library has] had the benefit of having a digital inclusion Google fellow for that past year and I can't tell you what a difference it has made," Coogan said. "Having a dedicated person for this work really meant a lot for us, and she has made huge strides."

Many in Kansas City's startup scene credit Google Fiber's entrance with bringing new attention to KC as a tech city, too. But Wilder—who is now based in Berlin—and Coogan both noted that Google has now slowed down these initiatives. The fellowship, for example, has ended, and Google Fiber has stopped expanding throughout the city.

Kansas City's "startup city," an incubator community for entrepreneurs. Image: US Department of State

Google Fiber's Kansas City Community Impact Manager wouldn't tell me the exact number of customers it's hooked up in KC, and was vague about the program's future.

"We hear loud and clear from communities in the region who are interested in talking with us, but for now we're heads down in innovation that will help us to do this business in a way that's maintainable for the long haul," said Hack Merlo.

While Google Fiber's future expansion in Kansas City is unclear, a Google spokesperson emphasized that the previously promised expansions—to Raymore, Missouri, more parts of Johnson County, and Mission Hills—will continue as planned.

Meanwhile, 70 percent of children in the Kansas City Missouri School District still do not have internet access in the home, according to recent surveys, and 28 percent of Kansas Citians who don't use the internet have said access is the main reason why. To be fair, Google never promised to eliminate the digital divide in Kansas City, but Wilder wondered why the local government invested so much to attract Google and its whip-fast internet for startups, when some communities didn't have any internet at all.

"It was a bit like if the public transit system said, 'instead of buying buses, we're going to buy a bunch of Teslas,'" Wilder said. "There are people that have nothing. Why are you hyping up this ultra speed thing?"

On a national scale, Google Fiber expanded to a total of 10 mid-sized cities across the country, but that is still "not even a blip" in the national broadband market, said Jan Dawson, the chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, which focuses on telecommunications. Dawson told me Google always seemed to view Fiber as an experimental project, one that perhaps wasn't as profitable as the company had anticipated, which would explain why it's started to scale back.

Ultimately, Google made a massive investment in the cities' infrastructures, one that will serve the communities for decades to come, according to Joanne Hovis, a technology and energy consultant who helps local governments figure out the best solutions for expanding broadband. This expansion, and the relatively affordable service, forced other internet service providers to step up to the plate and offer faster speeds for less. In this sense, Hovis said it can only be viewed as a success.

"This is the Holy Grail of infrastructures because fiber is capable of anything, it can scale up to include technology we can't even imagine yet," Hovis told me. "From an economic standpoint, it would have been deeply foolish to turn down what Google offered Kansas City. It's incredible disappointing that Google has decided to slow its rate of growth, but its impact has undeniably been tremendous."

While Google Fiber might not be the white knight that will hoist Kansas City into true digital inclusion or gig city status, it did plant a seed, according to Coogan. She told me people have had a glimpse of what KC can once again become: a hub of innovation and entrepreneurism. It might not be on Google's track, but after getting a taste of the future, people like Coogan are hopeful the community will be able to go the rest of the way on its own.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Google will finish previously promised Fiber buildouts. Google Fiber will also launch its promised markets in Louisville, Kentucky, and San Antonio, Texas.

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