The revolution happened at lunchtime on a Tuesday last November, and almost no one was there to see it. A polo-shirt-clad technician arrived at a small bungalow in Kansas City, Kansas, and plugged fiber-optic cable from the street into a white wall jack. A small, blue light on a black network box flickered on. "Connected!" homeowner Matthew Marcus shouted, pumping his fist. "I'm so excited, my hands are visibly shaking." The first Google Fiber hookup—an ultrahigh-speed gigabit Internet service and TV network that runs 100 times faster than garden-variety broadband—would have been cause for ballyhoo from almost any other company. But Google hid its excitement, shooing away most national media and insisting, again, that its investment to make the Kansas Cities (Kansas and Missouri) the first fiber-wired zone in the country represented nothing more than an experiment rather than a massive business opportunity to build the future of connectivity. Only months later did executive chairman Eric Schmidt intimate that there would be an expansion.
Everyone should have seen that coming: Keeping a low profile has become a hallmark of how Google innovates. Ever since the protracted struggle over Larry Page's bold plan to digitize every book in the world, Google's CEO has become a master at initiating pet projects and keeping them relatively under the radar—until, whaddaya know, they're significant parts of Google's operations. Android debuted as an open-source operating system for smartphone developers. Chrome was supposedly an in-house experiment to test a more streamlined web browser. Today, those two products are the most widely adopted mobile platform and browser in the world.
Google's arrival in Kansas City has galvanized the entire metropolitan region. Municipal leaders have their own playbooks for how to take advantage of Fiber, but citizens aren't waiting around for them. Each connected neighborhood—the locals call them "fiberhoods"—also brings high speeds to local libraries and schools, so neighbors have rallied neighbors to encourage sign-ups. Kansas Citian Bo Fishback used Zaarly (which he founded) to pay door-knockers to canvass his own leafy neighborhood. Zaarly has held community cleanups, hosted picnics, and handed out yard signs adorned with Fiber's bunny mascot. One local tech club raised money and donated gear to help the city's poorer neighborhoods get connected. If all this sounds as if citizens launched a political campaign to get their fast Internet, that's what it felt like too.
Campaign headquarters has been Google's showroom. The company calls it Fiber Space, a name that's too cute by half, but locals have enthusiastically adopted the place. It's located off State Line Road, the dividing line between Kansas and Missouri, where a once leaky, abandoned gym has been transformed into a community clubhouse. Like a good neighbor, Google's Fiber Space has ingratiated itself with movie nights and Halloween candy for kids. For weeks, there was a line out the door as people tried to get in just to see how fast the Internet was, a modern-day version of 1940s residents standing in front of the department store downtown to see television for the first time. As locals waited, they downed coffee from a nearby deli, whose to-go cups also featured the Fiber bunny and the cheeky tagline "100 times the energy."
Local coders hosted the country's first fiber hackathon in the Fiber Space, an all-nighter that drew legions of coders from around the Midwest and at least a half-dozen developers from Silicon Valley. Tyler Stalder, 25, left the area several years ago for San Francisco. He currently works for Singly, an increasingly hot startup that helps developers build better apps, located in San Francisco's Mission District. As he watches crews of hoodie- and Hawaiian-shirt-clad programmers munch pizza and sip local favorite Roasterie coffee inside, while others turbo-smoke cigarettes outside, he seemed almost regretful. "I sort of wish this was here when I was here because I might have stayed," he says.
Kansas City has instantly become a startup magnet. The Google launch was limited to residential service, so companies are setting up shop inside neighborhood houses. Four are in Matthew Marcus's home; on the day he got connected, he wore a shirt that read, "Kansas City startup village—settled 2012." Other firms are relocating from tech hubs such as San Francisco, Boston, and Denver. A grassroots program called Homes for Hackers offers three months of rent-free living for entrepreneurs who want to set up shop in a Fiber-connected home.
"The cool thing here is that the community is really inclusive and everybody is really hungry to meet new people and to make sure those people succeed," says Mike Demarais, a 20-year-old from Boston who dropped out of college and started a 3-D printing company here. When Demarais first hit town, he saved the plastic sheathing from a Fiber installation as a souvenir of what he believes is an epochal moment.
Google may not have anticipated every nuance of community excitement about Fiber's arrival, but it likely wasn't surprised at the reaction. There's an oft-repeated mantra at Google: Speed matters. What the company means is, the faster your Internet, the more you'll do with it. And the better that is for Google: More searches, more YouTube videos, more e-commerce, more revenue. It's not just about better TV service and quicker downloads; Google is selling a better civic quality of life.
There's little doubt that Google can replicate Fiber anywhere it chooses. More than 1,100 cities competed to host this experiment—so, there's a waiting list. A skeptical Goldman Sachs report in December estimated that Google would need $140 billion to wire up the rest of the United States, but Google wins even if it doesn't build out the Internet of the future all by itself. "They are driving demand for innovation, which will create demand for service levels like [Fiber] among the telecom companies," says Josh Olson, a tech analyst at Edward Jones. In November, AT&T announced a $14 billion plan to upgrade network speed around the country, boosting the power of its U-verse service. Time Warner Cable has also said that it would improve its own service if demand warrants it.
Google has let Kansas Citians make Fiber their own, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some suggestions of what they should do with it. At the Fiber Space launch party last July, sales reps handed out flyers with Fiber's new bunny logo. They were titled "10 things to try, gigabit-style." Everything linked back to a Google app.
[Photo by Taylor Glenn; Prop styling by Tiffany Romeo]