When Nick Budidharma wanted to launch a business based on his idea for an online gaming server, he didn’t head to California’s Silicon Valley or another traditional tech hot spot. Instead he set out for Kansas City, taking advantage of super-fast fiber connectivity being installed by Google and new local programs designed to build companies around those broadband resources.

Budidharma, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Hilton Head Island, S.C., moved into a five-bedroom “hacker home” last winter, sharing the space with several other aspiring entrepreneurs. After spending three months rent-free in the house, Budidharma launched his company, LeetNode. Now he plans to spend another year in the area — living in another entrepreneurial test tube environment called the KC Startup Community — while working on a second Internet-based startup. 

Google Fiber Test Bed

Budidharma’s experience may have been just what Kansas City leaders had in mind when they made a bid for Google Fiber several years ago. Kansas City, Kan., Mayor and CEO Joe Reardon led efforts to become a test bed for Google’s gigabit fiber-to-the-home Internet service. Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James then partnered with Reardon to extend the network across the state line. The region was among more than 1,000 communities competing for a chance to become home to the super-fast network. Google chose Kansas City for the project in 2011 and began installing the fiber network last year.

Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., stand to benefit from Google Fiber.

Reardon says he quickly realized that the fiber project would achieve a “deeper level of success” as a regional initiative. Reardon added that he and James had been in talks about the fiber project before James was elected in 2011. The partnership meant that the cities could work together to achieve the same goal.

“With ultra-high-speed fiber, if there’s a real value to it, you don’t just want it in one city,” Reardon said. “You want it to be in a lot of cities.”

As a result, the bordering cities have been introduced to Internet access with speed that is considered to be unprecedented anywhere in the U.S. Google says the new network offers connection speeds that are 100 times faster than what’s currently available in most U.S. communities.

The new fiber access has spurred a modern-day Gold Rush for hackers and entrepreneurs to flock to the city with hopes of jump-starting new businesses that can use the fiber network. “When Google came, it was kind of like we got this fantastic puzzle, but it had no picture on the box to tell us what it should look like when it’s done,” said James. “So we get to decide what it looks like when it’s done.”

Since the rollout began, hacker communities have cropped up in neighborhoods already connected to the fiber network.

“There are a lot of creative thinkers out there who are really looking forward to leveraging this on a small scale and a large scale,” said Ashley Z. Hand, the chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo. “I think we’re going to see new business ideas and connections from Kansas City to the rest of the world as a result of this technology coming here.”

Who’s Ready for a Gig?

Getting a gigabit Internet connection is great, but how much can you do with it? Stacey Higginbotham, writing for GigaOM, points out that current-generation laptops, wireless networking gear and Web-based services often can’t handle the new, blazing-fast connection speeds. Installing the fiber, she says, is relatively easy. Putting it to work, on the other hand, could be the next big challenge for gig cities.
As of late March, two Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods were being linked to the network. Another six neighborhoods were slated to begin the process in April. On the Kansas side, seven neighborhoods are undergoing installation and connection work, and three more will start this summer. Ultimately Google expects to hook up 180 neighborhoods — dubbed “fiberhoods” — to the network.

Although the project focuses on fiber to the home, Kansas City government facilities will receive a slice of the gigabit pie too. Mary J. Miller, CIO of Kansas City, Mo., said the Google partnership will link 300 city buildings to the network. Miller says the new connectivity will improve city services in areas like medical emergency response and public works.

“When [medical emergency personnel] are out there working at an accident, hopefully with this gigabit of data, they can take a picture, send it back to an emergency room and get a response,” she said.

Homes for Hackers

Tech entrepreneur Budidharma moved to Kansas City to jump-start his online gaming business with the help of local Web developer Ben Barreth, organizer of the Homes for Hackers program. Hackers get to live in a Google Fiber hot spot for three months without paying rent. “The whole point of the program is to lure businesses here that would never have otherwise considered Kansas City,” Barreth said. “And it’s a way that I’m hoping to put Kansas City on the map and really help people move here to exploit Google Fiber.”

Homes for Hackers offers three months of rent-free living for aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

Barreth’s hacker home is located in the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood of Hanover Heights, one of the first areas that was connected to the ultra-high-speed network. From its façade, the house looks like a traditional family home; however, once inside, visitors get a sense that it’s an incubator for business ideas. Walls are covered with whiteboards — each with an assortment of notes, contact information and ideas written in a rainbow of dry-erase pens.

Barreth said residents spend time problem-solving and bouncing ideas off one another. But the small house offers little personal space, he added. “It can get a little hairy too, because all these guys are living under this one roof.”

Roughly 60 individuals have applied to stay in the hacker home since the program started last summer. But only one or two applicants out of every 10 are chosen. To offset expenses, one of the house’s five bedrooms is rented out to visitors on international accommodations marketplace website Airbnb for $39 a night, while the other rooms are occupied by the hackers and entrepreneurs accepted for the program. In the future, Barreth also intends to pair other applicants accepted into the program with a Kansas City homeowner living in fiber-connected areas.

Another sign of rising interest is the popularity of KC Startup Village, an entrepreneur network that was established in 2012 to help individuals start businesses with the help of Google Fiber. Nearly 20 startups have set up shop in the village so far, with more on the horizon. Multiple organizations, including the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and LightBridge, support the startup village with their efforts to foster entrepreneurship.

Welcoming Fiber Tourists 

The high-profile project also is beginning to draw “fiber tourists” — visitors who are sampling the environment before deciding to relocate to the area. One such visitor is Chris Baran, an entrepreneur who rented the hacker home’s spare room for more than a week in early February.

Baran was drawn to Kansas City after hearing the Google Fiber announcement. During his stay, he attended networking events and met with members of the startup community and other small businesses. Baran says the city is extremely welcoming of visitors who want to get a feel for the place.

Future fiber tourists will be met by a supportive community that is ready to welcome people to the area and help point them in the right direction, Baran said. “If there’s anything you are looking to accomplish in Kansas City or if you are just coming to check out the Google Fiber, that is an excellent opportunity.”

And Then There Were Two …

As of early April, Kansas City has company. Google announced that it will begin installing a fiber network in Austin, Texas, starting in mid-2014. Besides offering city residents super-fast connectivity to their homes, the project will provide free gigabit connections to 100 public institutions, according to the company.
Attracting business-driven individuals to the community aligns with the vision of both Kansas City mayors. Reardon expects the fiber infrastructure to improve quality of life for city residents and become a magnet for pulling small-business owners into the region. “From a business economic development standpoint, I think it can’t be overstated that this is fuel for technology upstarts and entrepreneurs,” he said.

That appears to be the case, so far. One Million Cups, a local startup forum, regularly draws  more than 250 attendees to weekly meetings where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. Over the past year, 93 startups have presented, according to the organization.

After the region was selected for the Google project, Reardon and James appointed a Bistate Innovations Team (six members from each city) to address regional issues and find ways of using the network to create jobs, strengthen the economy and improve education.

Mike Burke, co-chair of the innovations team from the Missouri side of town, said the region has lacked a mature entrepreneurial community. But projects like the Kansas City Startup Village and University of Missouri’s Digital Sandbox — a proof-of-concept innovation center to generate new companies — are pumping new energy into the area. Burke says the Google Fiber and economic activity built around the network will encourage Kansas City natives to settle in their hometown after graduating from college.

Ray Daniels, who co-chairs the innovation team for the Kansas side, said the network will help close his city’s digital divide. “That gap is there now and we want to see that gap close,” Daniels said. “My dream of the future would be that every family and every student have access to high-speed fiber.”

On a larger scale, city leaders say the network and related activities could help retool the region’s workforce, making Kansas City more attractive to high-tech employers.

“What we need to do is start moving our workforce toward that,” James said. “And I think the fact that we have an engine pulling the technology issue in the city will cause the rest of the cars to follow.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.