Kansas City, Kan., Chosen For Google Network

Google announced it will build its much-awaited fiber optic network in Kansas City, Kan. Cities across the United States vied for the selection, which should give Internet users lightning-fast speeds. Why Kansas and what's Google trying to say?

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One mayor threw himself into Lake Superior. One city changed its name to Google for a month, all to no avail. Google has announced that its first coveted high-speed fiber-optic network will be built in a city that didnt do any flashy publicity stunts.

With about 150,000 people, Kansas City, Kansas, is just over the state line from its far larger sibling. Sylvia Maria Gross of member station KCUR looked into what this new high-tech marriage could mean both for Google and for KCK.

SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: At a deserted bus-stop in the heart of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, college student Jose Pineda says he uses the Internet to watch videos.

Mr. JOSE PINEDA (Student): It already comes pretty fast.

GROSS: The new fiber-optic cable is supposed to be 100 times faster than existing technology in the United States. Pinedas not sure what he needs that for.

Mr. PINEDA: I mean, how fast could that be? Is that, like, the speed of light or what?

GROSS: Hes not the only one asking.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Wyandotte High Schools auditorium was decked out in Googles colors for yesterdays announcement. Governor Sam Brownback declared it Google Day in Kansas. But he, too, is not sure what you can do with Internet connections of one gigabit per second.

Governor SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Backstage, we were just talking ahead of time about, well: What does this mean? And everybody looks around, kind of - well, I am not exactly sure.

GROSS: Thats part of the point of this experiment, says Kevin Lo, whos general manager of the Google Access project. He says the new burst of speed will drive innovation and create its own applications, just like broadband did in the past decade.

Mr. KEVIN LO (General Manager, Google Access Point): When you went from dial-up to broadband, that fundamental shift in how you use the Web is what we expect, what we believe will happen, on top of this network.

GROSS: Lo does give some examples of what the ultra-high speed Internet can make much easier today: video-conferencing, telemedicine, 3-D imaging.

Mayor Joe Reardon says the new network could make Kansas City, Kansas, a home for companies that rely on Internet distribution or need a lot of bandwidth.

Mayor JOE REARDON (Kansas City, Kansas): Weve already fielded calls within 24 hours of our announcement of people saying: Hey, wheres housing? Im interested in looking at your city. You know, maybe I should be moving there.

GROSS: Reardon knows that Google chose Kansas City, Kansas, because of some of its challenges. The aging infrastructure is actually going to make it easier for Google to lay the fiber-optic cable.

The city also has a high poverty rate. And like similar places around the country, Reardon says theres a digital divide between those who have access to the Internet and those who dont.

Mayor REARDON: What excites us about our partnership with Google is they understand that, and they want to work with us to have this dialog to sort of bridge that digital divide, you know, not just by way of access, but by way of learning and understanding and valuing the Internet and connectivity as an essential component to quality of life.

GROSS: The citys already been working on this issue. The school district gives a laptop to every high school student and has received national attention for reducing its racial achievement gap.

But Google has other motives in rolling out this new fiber-optic cable. Officials say theyre trying to nudge the U.S. cable and telecommunications industries to provide faster Internet connections at lower prices.

Michigan State University professor Robert LaRose says he doesnt expect Google will make much of a dent in the market in the short term.

Professor ROBERT LaROSE (Michigan State University): In the long term though, it might inspire carriers out there to help America get back into the game.

GROSS: Kansas City, Kansas, is expecting to have its network up and running next year. Google hasnt announced yet how much the service will cost or how soon it will expand to other parts of the country.

For NPR News, Im Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.

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