This spring will look less leafy at 39th and Genessee streets in Kansas City, Mo.
Blame the need for Internet speed.
A crew, hired by Google Inc. to make way for the company’s overhead fiber optic lines, transformed the neighborhood ginkgo trees into tall stumps one morning last summer.
“They butchered ’em, just butchered ’em,” said Ted Larkin, the owner of three buildings in the neighborhood.
Complaints would ultimately prompt the removal of what was left of the trees, replaced with saplings needing decades to produce the same shade. Those in the neighborhood notice the difference.
“Technology,” said Jim Svetlecic of State of the Art picture frame shop, “is not painless.”
Once Google Fiber fully wires Kansas City with its light-speed-to-the-home Internet network, no other American market its size will boast such broad, broad broadband.
To get there, the Google Fiber technicolor bunny is tree-trimming, jackhammering and trenching its way across the area to hoist, bury and stretch a network of fiber optic lines that zig-zags — so far — for nearly 6,000 miles.
On a given day, city officials say, about 1,000 workers for private companies scatter across the market to climb utility poles, string cables through buried conduit or lace lines into crawl spaces to stitch together Google’s network.
Sometimes their work leaves beloved trees denuded. Other times, crews clip electrical, telephone, cable or natural gas lines. On occasion, people nearby have had to clear out of homes or offices when gas leaks were triggered.
Google’s contractors planted metal cabinets in sidewalks and other places that upset residents in the early months of construction. It was forced to relocate about a dozen of the boxes, sometimes to comply with federal rules against blocking wheelchair access.
It got complaints of workers moving through neighborhoods without identification. Now, the company says, they all wear Google Fiber-branded vests and hats or helmets.
“We take each question and complaint seriously,” a company spokeswoman said, “and consider what the best thing to do is in each situation.”
A project known for its promise of instantaneous downloads is, for now, chiefly being experienced as old-style construction and its accompanying headaches.
A year ago, about 20 Brookside homes were evacuated when a gas line was ruptured in the neighborhood. The incident began when a Google contractor accidentally cut one of AT&T’s underground lines. When AT&T dispatched a contractor to repair the damage, that crew hit a gas line.
On a Sunday afternoon late last year, a Google contractor hit a gas line near Wornall Road and 50th Street. That triggered an evacuation of 75 to 100 people at the Kirkwood Condominiums for roughly four hours. The condo has since been wired for Google Fiber, and Christine Lentz, who manages the units for Curry Association Management, said it’s received high marks from residents.
AT&T suffered an outage earlier this month in the Northland — where Google Fiber’s latest expansion is just beginning — when a contractor damaged a cable beneath Vivion Road. Working in a thoroughfare, AT&T said, made it tough to mend the broken line.
The telecommunications industry offers no handy yardstick by which to judge whether construction causes unreasonable disruption. Rather, companies say any construction is bound to beget accidents, which they do their best to minimize.
“We strive to return the property to its original condition,” said Time Warner Cable spokesman Michael Pedelty.
City and gas and electric utility officials largely give Google Fiber good marks for its major remaking of Kansas City high-tech infrastructure. Yet they concede a project so large is no small inconvenience.
“(Google) is essentially re-plumbing the city for fiber,” said Kansas City Power & Light Co. spokesman Chuck Caisley. “Folks need to understand that any infrastructure project is messy and difficult.”
Google’s work to wire Kansas City, Kan., is mostly complete.
Across the state line, the second major phase of the project is just getting underway. Less than half of Kansas City’s neighborhoods have been wired for Google Fiber. The company is now starting work in the southern and northern thirds of the city as well as Raytown, Grandview and Gladstone.
Yet the work has already generated more than 37,000 construction permits in Kansas City. (The Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kan., required just two blanket permits to cover traffic obstruction, construction and right of way access.)
Those permits give Google contractors permission to bore into streets and sidewalks to install underground cables, to cut off lanes of traffic while the work is going on, and sometimes to put metal plates over temporary holes in the pavement.
Kansas City has waived the usual fees for those permits for Google — and to other telecommunication companies since then. Had it been charging Google the usual fees, city officials said, the costs might near $2 million.
Caisley said KCP&L was anxious about working with a company taking its first swing at infrastructure. Google has been hanging much of its wire on the electric utility’s poles. Yet he said Google — primarily through chief contractor Atlantic Engineering Group — “has done an excellent job.”
Still, complaints have piled up. On Google Fiber’s online forum, one resident complained of a foul-mouthed crew that damaged a tree and a fence.
Another wrote of a crew showing up without Google identification and scaling a wall without permission.
Google concedes the sometimes disruptive nature of its network construction.
“We planned out our network so that we could avoid digging up streets or sidewalks, trying to install fiber (lines) on utility poles or through existing conduit instead,” the company said in an email. “We also planned our network to avoid going into people’s yards as much as possible.”
But the company said it often needs to dig in roads or the portion of yards in the public right of way.
“We ask our contractors to follow the Golden Rule and to treat streets, sidewalks and lawns as they’d want their own neighborhood to be treated,” the company said. “If we need to dig in a street, we patch up holes or trenches and repave the area. If we need to dig in a lawn, we replant grass seed. If we need to dig in a nice garden, we repay the homeowner for any plants we disturbed. If we need to trim trees, we work with professional arborists who know what they’re doing.”
Rick Usher, Kansas City’s assistant city manager, said City Hall fields a “few calls a week” with complaints from residents about Google Fiber construction. It’s often about things like debris left in a yard or work mistakenly attributed to the Google project.
The complaints prompt calls to Google’s contractors and, Usher said, are usually resolved in a few days.
“There’s a lot of work going on,” he said.
Missouri Gas Energy said that it’s seen a 40 percent increase in damage to its lines in the last year. The company does not know how much of that spike stems from Google Fiber construction. Other telecommunications companies are also increasing the amount of fiber optic lines they’re burying in the market.
“As construction projects increase,” said company spokeswoman Jenny Gobble, “it’s logical that damage happens.”
©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)