Google’s 1 Gbps Network Spurs Big Ideas in Kansas City

Opinion: Kansas City — the one in Kansas and the other in Missouri — both must take a level of ownership over Google’s 1 Gbps network if a flood of ideas is to become a reality.

by / July 11, 2011

In case you missed it — all of last year’s hype, shark dodging, name changing and promotional flights of fancy by 1,100 cities pursuing Google’s “Gigabit City” prize — Kansas City, Kan., was named leader of the pack in March. Then, just a few weeks later, Google doubled down and announced Kansas City, Mo., its second winner.
I recently conducted a site visit to the “Kansas Cities” to get a feel for how things are moving along there as Google ramps up to build 1 Gbps networks there. While lots are folks are happy to have Google as a partner in the pursuit of broadband, it seems the company doles out information reluctantly. I met with several local journalists who indicate everyone short of the neighborhood barber is under a nondisclosure agreement with very little they can talk about publicly.

Looking at the various public-private partnerships (PPP) that are working well across the U.S., open communication and full disclosure are the watchwords. Both cities need to assert a role for themselves if they want to reap the many benefits they highlighted when answering Google’s question to applicants: “What would you do with a gigabit?”

Own the Process

Communities entering into PPPs must own the processes for generating the outcomes they wish broadband to deliver. Just as Chattanooga, Tenn., is setting the bar for community-owned broadband networks, Kansas City can set the standard for PPPs by religiously adhering to this principle. Once they own the process, they can work more effectively with their private-sector partners.

The respective mayors of KCK (Kansas) and KCMO (Missouri) have set a tone for both cities to work together closely on the broadband project — a solid first step in establishing ownership. It helps tremendously that both mayors are close friends and in the early months of their respective terms. Though only separated by a river (and at one section, by just a sidewalk), each city is an autonomous jurisdiction within a different state.

In a wise move, the mayors are establishing a steering/planning committee comprised of stakeholders from each city — but no city officials. This committee and other key stakeholders should, in an initial planning stage, pretend that Google isn’t part of the picture and that they will have to build, fund and manage the network on their own.

By creating a plan, establishing a shared vision among constituents, sorting out priorities and generating ideas for network applications from a perspective of independence, the elements that enable broadband to deliver its main benefits should come into clear focus — and the partnership should more effectively deliver on constituents’ and partners’ best interests. And if the PPP falters, each Kansas City would be able to regroup and keep the project moving forward.

Streamlining the Vision

Kansas City officials and stakeholders need to get everyone on the same shared vision — and quickly. They can’t wait for Google to put all its cards on the table. To own the outcomes, you need to own the vision, which can always be amended later to align with Google’s mission. Chattanooga got on the same page from the get-go, and that’s one reason they’ve moved so far and so fast. 

In similar fashion and for similar reasons, the Kansas Cities — and for that matter, all cities in a similar situation — must establish and control the message. Everything that the city and stakeholders say about the network must be consistent. Big Internet service providers are out there to compete. A community’s message should complement its private partners, but preferably without giving up too much ownership.  

Prepare for the Idea Flood

“Idea management” is a phrase I coined coming out of Chattanooga. There, and in Oklahoma City and elsewhere, cities have discovered  that launching community broadband networks opened the floodgates for hundreds of ideas for applications and services that would run on those networks. Oklahoma City managed to turn 217 of its many hundreds of ideas into applications on its government-use-only wireless network by year three. Chattanooga has 485 applications running on its city-use wireless network after only a year.

It would have been impossible to put these applications into play without a structured system of soliciting, evaluating, sorting good from bad, prioritizing and converting ideas into actual applications. Kansas City generated an enormous amount of local awareness and support for the network when it wooed Google. In Kansas City, Mo., the mayor’s chief of staff sees 100 ideas coming in a day.

Idea management isn’t just a feel-good exercise. Serious project and time management issues erupt when tackling the deluge of ideas, and potentially serious political fallout occurs if these ideas and the people submitting them are handled haphazardly. 

Accelerating Startups

Enhancing economic development usually is a main priority for a broadband network. Typically communities focus on using broadband to attract new businesses into town and make existing businesses more competitive. Several people I met with in Kansas City hope that fostering startups, particularly in technology and biotech, becomes a specific focus. Since one of Google’s missions is to see what kind of innovation springs up from the network, Kansas City should find the company particularly supportive in this area.

Cities can take their lead from Chattanooga, which is particularly aggressive in working with incubators and colleges to create a startup “culture” that it hopes one day rivals Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128. Another example is in Pulaski, Tenn., where the city is using the fiber network to facilitate programs that increase the start of home-based businesses.

Kansas City officials expect the 69 contract research organizations in the area and the University of Kansas Medical Center to play key roles — along with the network — in accelerating medical, pharmaceutical and biotech startup activity. The Software and Information Technology Association of Kansas is increasing its membership and presence in the region, and it too should cultivate new ventures.

Digital inclusion is a major concern of the Wyandotte County Economic Development Council, which includes Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon and undoubtedly many others. Managers within the Kansas City library systems, as well as Kansas City, Mo., CIO Ivan Drinks, have floated the concept of wiring libraries as central computing hubs to drive inclusion programs. Additionally they could serve as neighborhood labs for constituents to test locally created applications that utilize the gigabit connectivity. 

It may seem counterintuitive since many assume computer usage in libraries drops off as people get computers in their homes and offices. However, a recent analysis from the Institute of Museum and Library Services states, “Despite the fact that computer and Internet penetration rates are climbing at dramatic rates, public access computer services in U.S. public libraries continue to be in high demand.”

The Missouri Research and Education Network (MOREnet) provides Internet connectivity, services and training to Missouri’s schools, colleges, libraries and other public organizations. Drinks believes MOREnet has a valuable role to play and “efforts to increase digital inclusion need to proceed from the position that low-income people, particularly youth, are not ‘less smart.’ They mainly suffer from having less access.”

There’s definitely much to do to get Kansas City — both of them — and Google off on the right foot. But apparently they don’t lack people or ideas.

Craig Settles Contributing Writer

Craig Settles consults with municipalities and co-ops about their broadband networks' business and marketing plans. His latest analysis report is Telehealth and Broadband: In Sickness and In Health, an assessment of why telehealth providers and community broadband builders should work together to drive broadband and telemedicine adoption.