Kansas City Gets Gigabit Speeds. What About the Rest of Us?

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In February 2010, Google announced they were going to give some lucky city a gigabit network (services on the network are not free). Today, Google announced Kansas City, Kan. is the Gigabit City winner. It’s an awesome day for Kansas City, and it may not be alone. In Google’s blog today about Kansas City is this statement: “We’ll also be looking closely at ways to bring ultra high-speed Internet to other cities across the country.” Sounds like Google isn’t finished yet. And that’s a good thing.

When Google started down this path last year, I wrote an analysis outlining what I thought Google’s actions meant and how it might impact efforts to bring better broadband to America. Now that we have a winner, some of those key point put today’s Kansas City announcement into national context.

Vision: Don’t Leave Home Without It

Remember the New York Governor’s race and The Rent is Too D*** High party that ran a candidate? There needs to be a new party, The Broadband Goal is Too D*** Low. Wednesday’s announcement is going to throw a big spotlight on the deficiency between goals promoted in the National Broadband Plan and the vision promoted and amplified by Google. Whereas the Broadband Plan’s 10-year goal is to have 100 Mbps in 100 million homes, and just 4 Mbps in rural areas, Google asked, what can you do with a gigabit in the next year or two?

Washington is content to encourage gigabit lines to institutions, but for communities at large, it’s offering mid-range or substandard goals. Kansas City represents the philosophy of aim high, win big. Yes, there are communities where gigabit speeds aren’t practical, but Google will inspire more communities to find a way to get better wireless or wired broadband by aiming for that gigabit goal than by telling communities, “Four Mbps is the best you can hope for.”

Understanding Stakeholders’ Needs

One great thing that should come from news coverage of Kansas City’s community stakeholders is that the real value of broadband finally will sink into more people’s minds. So many times you read or hear community broadband critics miss the point, asking, “Why should we spend resources so kids can download YouTube and surf porn sites?” Over and over in Wednesday’s Kansas City webcast, you heard government officials, business people and just plain folks talk about the economic, healthcare and education benefits they have planned for broadband.

One of the reasons you have those anti-municipal network laws in the Carolinas and elsewhere is because older legislators in particular, and constituents in general, don’t understand the needs these networks address. In the Kansas statehouse, there’s likely to be less resistance to government and public utility participation, because those lawmakers see up close and personal that community broadband’s benefits are truly bipartisan.

The Value of Partnerships

Google redefines the general perception of public-private partnerships in broadband. To be fair, Corning, which makes fiber,  started this redefinition when it signed a partnership with three counties in rural New York to fund a community-owned network. But, Google being Google, the intense media coverage will help communities realize they don’t have to limit such private partnership discussions to only service providers.

Expect the creative juices to flow as communities reading about Kansas City begin to push the envelope in deciding what kind of companies make good partners. I received a call this week from a national retail outfit that said the home delivery part of their business is directly influenced by who has broadband. What if stakeholders pick up this thread and start probing businesses that want to increase sales in their community. Who might benefit enough to finance part of a network buildout?

Serving, Not Fighting, the Will of the People

I wrote in my analysis last year, “Google appears to have a strong desire get people actively engaged on the network, which also means lots of community involvement in the planning process.” Two of the reasons Google gave for choosing Kansas City are 1) it could quickly build the network because there’s a lot of great infrastructure in place that the community is making available for the network’s use; and 2) it was easy to develop partnerships with local government and various community stakeholders.

In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. saw a surge in communities willing to take on the burdens of building, owning and operating broadband infrastructure either alone or in partnership with private industry. The National Broadband Plan endorses and encourages community networks be part of the strategy for getting better broadband in more places. Kansas City is likely to become the poster child for the win-win possibilities for companies that step in to facilitate the will of the people.

Google is going to win in a number of ways. The publicity alone is going to be huge when you consider how much it costs to generate the print and digital coverage it’s getting from this project. Then there’s the R&D value of Kansas City as a test bed for potential Google apps and networking. Ultimately, there is also a dollars-and-cents value of being a part or partial owner of the infrastructure, depending on how Google structured the deal with the city.

And don’t forget the political clout Google will be able to wield within the state and in D.C. President Obama wants a digital future that achieves great things (mediocre speed goals and wireless over-dependency not withstanding). By responding to the will of people in communities (what some might call market demand), Google helps the administration get what it wants. AT&T and Verizon may have officials’ ears when it comes to broadband policy, but Google has earned another seat at the table and another win.

Speaking about serving the will of the people, there’s another significant impact of the Kansas City announcement. It throws into bold relief the difference between a community and state working with private industry to take that community into the future, and a state such as North Carolina where a few legislators are working with private industry to drag communities back to the digital dark ages. Which state is being better served? The one serving the will of the people, of course.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and Co-Director of Communities United for Broadband and can be found at @cjsettles on Twitter.

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