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Google's Kansas City experiment begins to yield start-ups

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By The Washington Post
Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 5:16 p.m.
 

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Smack in the middle of the nation, this city is about as far as possible from the hubs of high-tech innovation on both coasts.

An effort last spring to excite new Web entrepreneurs in a place better known for cattle drives and barbecue sauce turned up just a dozen people.

Then Google blew into town.

The company, dominant in the virtual world, began digging actual holes in the ground and connected homes and businesses to Internet speeds 100 times faster than most Americans have ever seen.

Three months into Google's much-publicized experiment, signs of new business life have emerged. Nick Budidharma, an 18-year-old game developer, drove with his parents from Hilton Head, S.C., to live in a “hacker home” that's connected to Google's Fiber broadband network. Synthia Payne uprooted from Denver and landed here to launch a start-up that aims to let musicians jam real-time online. That sleepy weekly gathering for Web entrepreneurs recently attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 260 businesspeople, investors and city officials.

Just as the move from dial-up modems to higher-speed Internet connections helped produce Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, policymakers and Google hope this next leap forward will breed a whole new slate of innovations.

The effort also is turning up the heat on cable companies, which now have to compete for consumers who can get faster speeds at lower monthly costs. Those telecom companies have begun bidding against Google to wire firms and city buildings with equally high-octane Internet.

“What Google is providing is a catalyst. This infrastructure is enormously important to create a ripple effect of entrepreneurial activity,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the Kauffman Foundation, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit that is trying to help local start-ups and officials turn around this city.

It's an audacious and unproven experiment, the equivalent of replacing country roads with the Autobahn speedway and then assuming Formula One race cars will materialize. The question is whether it is a curiosity — a publicity stunt — or an example of what could happen around the country if more cities had access to such fast connections.

Some privacy advocates worry that the project raises questions about how deeply Google will become entwined in its customers' lives.

“It gives them yet another way to gather and amass information about people, to build their digital dossiers,” said John Simpson, director at the public interest group Consumer Watchdog. “They have so much data about users at their fingertips and become a magnet for government request for that information.”

But local officials think those lightning-fast Internet speeds, which allow movies to download in seconds and create picture- and sound-perfect video conference calls, will enable companies to operate more efficiently and use increased computing power to create cutting-edge technologies.

The ripples so far are small. About a dozen start-ups have been introduced in the first neighborhood to get Google's 1-gigabit-per-second service.

Of course, Google has much to gain if the test in Kansas City works.

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