Google Fiber, with its promise of ultra-high-speed fiber-optic Internet access, is the area's most talked-about technological advancement.
It isn't the most interesting thing going on in the metro's tech community, though. That's the point of this week's cover story.
But we'll get to that in a minute. We know that you want to hear about Google Fiber first. Which is why, when we started planning this issue, we called Google Fiber first. And here's what Google said: Chillax, dudes, it's coming.
All right, Google didn't really say that. But four full months into 2012 — by which time Google said Fiber would go live in KCK and KCMO — nearly everything about the service remains shrouded in mystery. Where are the crews working to string cable? Who's doing the job? Who comes online first? What are the customers' costs? Answers have been few and sporadic. A company blog dedicated to the massive project has been updated just three times this year, and one of those posts was an April Fools' Day joke.
Even the folks running Give Us a Gig — an ad hoc group of local businesspeople dedicated to collating efforts among neighborhoods to take full advantage of Google Fiber's mind-blowing speed — are on the outside looking in. That group's Aaron Deacon tells The Pitch that, besides the important matters of dates and price, there are other conversations about what it means to get gigabyte-speed Internet.
"The success of this project," Deacon says of Google Fiber, "really depends on people adopting it — getting connected in ways we haven't been before and doing so at a higher speed. We don't need to sell Google, but we kind of do. We need to sell the idea of connectivity."
In an interview with The Pitch, Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said she was unable to confirm when Fiber was rolling out, what neighborhoods would have it first, or how much those users would pay. She did not say whether Google will make KC a test market for its long-gestating pay-TV service — as reports of an enormous satellite-antenna farm in Iowa suggest to industry analysts. (Such a subscription-based service would challenge an already competitive market, but Google might come out on top if it pledged not to use telemarketers. Stop calling us about adding home phone service, Time Warner.)
Wandres would, of course, confirm that Google's network is going to be really, really fast (so fast, Hollywood is fearful that the Midwest is about to become the next South Korea of video piracy, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story). And she admits that Google TV might be — maybe, someday, we'll see — on the table. After all, she knows that we know about the video franchise licenses Google applied for — and received — in Kansas and Missouri.
"We could possibly offer a video offering along with our gigabyte Internet service," Wandres said. "But the truth is, we haven't made any announcements about this yet in terms of product offerings, and we haven't solidified whether or not we will actually be offering video. It was just a legal step that we had to do if we even wanted to keep the option open."
"We haven't fully announced what our product offerings will be for Google Fiber, and we hope to do that in the midsummer range," Wandres added. "Once we do that, we'll be able to know whether we're offering a video service initially, or whether it's coming down the line or not at all."
When exactly will Google make these announcements?
"We're aiming to have some options announced by June," Wandres said. "That's our goal."
Fine. Next question.
The last bit of real Google Fiber news in Kansas City — that more than 100 miles of fiber cable had been hung — came with a drawing of a "Google Fiber Hut," from which wires had been strung to utility poles and then to homes and businesses in something called "Gigabyte symmetric fiber connectivity."
"Essentially, they're equipment aggregation points," Wandres explained. "So we'll take the larger fiber connection, and we'll kind of filter them through the fiber huts, and that gives us a place where we can split up the fiber connections for different neighborhoods and different areas of Kansas City so that we're not running completely off one backbone to every house. It lets us take that backbone and split it up in different huts across the city."
So, like, if you see an aluminum outbuilding that mysteriously lacks a riding mower, it's Google's?
"It looks like your standard backyard shed. It's nothing special," Wandres said. "We haven't marked them at all, and we're not announcing where they are. They're just kind of around the city."
What about apartment dwellers, all the people who have been lured downtown in the past decade? Are they at a disadvantage compared with homeowners?
"Not that I know of," Wandres said.
Either way, according to Wandres, most KC homes are already fiber-ready. It's just a matter of getting each structure connected.
"The nice thing about fiber to the home is, you can take the connection and pretty much wire it into any home, and it will work the same across the board," Wandres said. "With the fiber-to-the-home connections, you'll get the gigabyte speeds with the right connections — an Ethernet connection. If you use Wi-Fi, the speeds will be a little bit slower because that's the way Wi-Fi works. ... But you'll still be able to use that network on multiple computers or devices throughout your home."
Hang on: We really aren't going to need new gear in order to, say, stream Hulu at NASA velocity?
No. Maybe. When?
Wandres: "We don't know what you can use it [Google Fiber] for right now. Back when we had dial-up Internet, we couldn't imagine what it would be like to stream videos over Netflix or watch HD videos on YouTube. One of the things that we hope with Google Fiber is that people will be able to use a gigabyte to develop the applications of the future and enjoy them in the home. It's kind of hard to project what would be useful to people with a gigabyte in the home. For now, computers and electronic devices, like tablets and phones, [and] Internet-ready TVs will be immediately useful with Google Fiber. And in the future, we're not sure." (We asked Wandres what her home tech rig looks like; she didn't want to say on the record, but it didn't sound like anything the rest of us couldn't get.)
And then our time was up, and Wandres was gone, and we felt ... about the same.
Which means we felt really good. Because Kansas City's tech community was starting to boom even before Google Fiber chose this as its kickoff site, and now that growth looks exponential. This week's Pitch is the first of a new, periodic series dedicated to the metro's entrepreneurs, innovators and young professionals whose designs, apps and business models are at the heart of KC's future. Read on: