Kansas City, Mo., to Serve as Lab for Google Wireless Broadband

The company will build on the network that made Google Fiber service possible to test new technology to determine if it can make the Internet fast and wireless.

by Scott Canon, The Kansas City Star / April 15, 2016

(TNS) — Four years ago, Google began pumping superspeed Internet connections to ordinary households in Kansas City — making it the first market in the country to get such vast bandwidth in the home.

Now the company, building on the pricey network that made Google Fiber service possible, wants to test new technology to see if it can make the Internet fast and wireless.

If the emerging technology works in a city setting — Google wants to run tests downtown, on the Country Club Plaza and in six other spots — it could make Kansas City the most wired and wireless place in the world to tap into the Internet.

Yet unlike the landline cables strung to living rooms across the metro area, this play comes without an immediate plan to hook you up.

Google isn’t eager yet to raise hopes of constant connectivity. The tests will operate in a radio spectrum that your tablet, your laptop and your smartphone can’t reach. They’d need new chips or antennas.

It remains uncertain whether it will work or how and when it might be of use to consumers. At best, Google estimates it might understand what’s possible by the end of next year.

The company also is looking at whether it could use wireless technology to beam the Internet to places where it’s too expensive to bury cable or string it on utility poles. That could be helpful in dense areas of cities, or in remote neighborhoods where too few customers live to justify expensive construction.

A Google consultant, Robert Jystad, presented the company’s plan Thursday morning to a Kansas City Council committee. The company is asking for two-year, and discounted, permission to put antennas on city light poles and other structures in eight areas: downtown, the Plaza, Waldo, 18th and Vine, Zona Rosa, Brookside, Westport and near Barry Road and Interstate 29. The testing will be outdoors in four places and inside at all eight.

Google Slide show to Kansas City Council

Jystad said the project is motivated partly by the inability of existing Wi-Fi and cell networks to keep up with fast-growing demand for bandwidth.

The council later voted 11-2 to give Google access to city light poles for the project.

Google wants to explore how well a range of frequencies can channel video streaming, online game-playing and the many other data swaps that work well only with a wide opening to the Internet.

For decades, the targeted radio spectrum could be used only by the U.S. military. In practice, it remained mostly vacant.

So a year ago, federal regulators opened it up in hopes that newly available frequencies might relieve the airwave congestion that makes connecting to the Internet on the go such a hit-and-miss game.

The Federal Communications Commission calls it the Citizens Broadband Radio Service — not to be confused with the stuff of truckers or 1970s hobbyists.

The spectrum would be used for a number of different services, and part of that would be open to anyone — unlike cellphone frequencies, for which companies pay the federal government for exclusive use.

Google told The Star it wants to operate in that spectrum in Kansas City experimentally. It’s unclear how long it would take to attach its antennas to city light poles and inside buildings in the eight areas. The company also said it didn’t know how long it would take to test the system.

The company has received an experimental license from the FCC to operate on newly available frequencies. In applying for that permission, Google promised to avoid interference with existing operations. Google has done some testing in the 3.5 gigahertz range in conjunction with the Defense Department and the Navy to make sure such signals wouldn’t foul up radar used for some air traffic control.

Part of the appeal of Kansas City is the chance to work in an urban environment, where all manner of radio signals — police and fire radios, Wi-Fi, cellphone systems — can clutter the airwaves.

It’s also where Google has spent heavily — likely hundreds of millions of dollars — to string fiber-optic lines on utility poles and underground to knit together its landline Google Fiber service.

Councilman Jermaine Reed said the pilot program could further elevate the city’s techie bona fides.

“We’re really showcasing how we’re on the cutting edge moving forward,” he said. “We in Kansas City are in the spotlight leading the way on technology.”

Assistant City Manager Rick Usher said that if the technology pans out, it could potentially tie into various “smart city” plans to improve energy use and allow various electronics across the city to coordinate more easily.

“It could be another way to tap things into the Internet,” he said.

In its slide show for the City Council, Google said: “If successful, the Kansas City metro area will be the first gigabit region to benefit with new advanced wireless services.”

Google Fiber offers landline connections with upload and download speeds of 1-gigabit-per-second — delivering bandwidth to homes that previously was available only to university campuses and other large institutions.

Since Google Fiber’s entry into the Kansas City market, AT&T and Consolidated Communications have begun selling gigabit connections at consumer prices. And Time Warner Cable, while not matching Google’s speeds, has dramatically increased the bandwidth it offers at the same price it formerly charged for much slower hookups.

The possibilities of the wireless technology could lead in multiple directions.

For instance, it could lower the cost and disruption of outfitting home Internet service.

Kansas City has seen its streets and lawns torn up since Google Fiber came to town to build its system — and its competitors have done the same to keep pace.

Analysts see some potential with that application, although radio waves in that spectrum don’t penetrate walls well and can’t match the capacity of fiber-optic cable.

Wireless companies such as Overland Park-based Sprint have used a similar technology in recent years — placing multiple “small cell” antennas in urban areas to save money and reach where more expensive cell towers can’t do the job.

In voting against the Google proposal in committee, Northland Council Member Dan Fowler complained about construction disruptions and Google’s sometimes plodding rollout.

“They go in and run roughshod,” he said.

Council member Teresa Loar, also upset with how Google Fiber has operated in some neighborhoods, was the other vote against the project.

In an interview posted on Re/code early Thursday, Google executive Craig Barratt said the company wants to see how wireless technology could deliver robust Internet connections to isolated homes — more cheaply and with much less of the digging that has prompted so many complaints in Kansas City.

“It allows you (to) reach houses and users that are in lower-density settings — where fiber becomes too expensive,” said Barratt, who oversees Google Fiber. “We think, over time, there will be a sort of heterogeneous mix of technologies that we can use, depending upon the type of problem we’re trying to solve.”

Google came under fire for skipping over Kansas City area neighborhoods where it found only middling demand for its Internet service. The company said it couldn’t justify the expense of construction in areas where too few customers seemed willing to buy.

Using radio signals, rather than expensive construction to extend cables, might shift that dynamic.

Meanwhile, federal regulators look at the 3.5 GHz spectrum as a little-used data lane that might increase the speed of wireless Internet. There’s some worry that signals like the ones Google plans to use could either interfere with or jam those of other data traveling in nearby frequencies.

The coordinating of the next-door spectrum signals would be automated by technology that’s yet to get much testing in real-world conditions.

“Will it work? Have we struck a balance that will allow a variety of innovative uses to flourish?” FCC commissioner Ajit Pai wrote about the evolving rules. “We will see.”

©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.