High Speed Internet is Kansas City’s Lightning Rod

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Almost a year and a half after Google Fiber began laying cable across Kansas City -- the first metro to gain access to Google’s high-speed Internet connection -- it has become home to a thriving startup community. With the promise of delivering data to residences at one hundred times the speed of the average American Internet connection, Google Fiber has drawn entrepreneurs from across the country to the midwest in search of a more efficient way to develop new products.

Even before Google Fiber made its mark on Kansas City, the city’s entrepreneurial spirit made it a hotspot for innovation. In fact, part of the reason Google selected the city, out of over one thousand applicants, was because they believed the eager-to-collaborate city government and many tech-friendly organizations already in place would be a great foundation for citizens to gain the most from Google Fiber. Some of the entities that made Kansas City such an attractive test-city include the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a leader in research demonstrating the economic benefits of entrepreneurship, incubators like Pipeline and Think Big Partners, and the tech-focused publication Silicon Prairie News.

Google promised to foot the bill for developing an infrastructure to deliver the high-speed fiber-optic Internet to residences in the city. Residents then would to choose between

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three different plans for access to Google Fiber.

The basic free plan provides Internet with five megabit download and one megabit upload bandwidth. This Internet capability is comparable to what national cable companies provide across the country for a monthly fee. The two higher-level Google Fiber plans have monthly fees and provide the user one gigabit Internet -- one hundred times the speed of broadband.

One gigabit bandwidth is an Internet connection faster than most Americans have ever had access to. Such a large bandwidth capability is extremely beneficial to startups, allowing engineers to upload large sets of data almost instantaneously, and enabling founders to seamlessly video chat with partners and investors across the globe.

Google Fiber has fast-tracked the growth of Kansas City’s tech community. Inexpensive high-speed Internet is certainly an asset to young startups, but the truly exciting thing to come from Google Fiber is the supportive and collaborative tech community that has developed around it.

The first neighborhood to receive access to the high-speed Internet, Hanover Heights, has become a hub of tech creation. Dubbed KC Startup Village, the area began attracting engineers as soon as it was selected as the first “Fiberhood”.

This large influx of entrepreneurs prompted Ben Barreth, a Kansas City tech enthusiast, to spend his life savings on a house in Hanover Heights in October of 2012. But, rather than move in himself, he has used it to house his Homes for Hackers program.

“The original idea of H4H was to get volunteer homeowners with fiber to let startups live with them for free,” Barreth explains. “Google released their fiber rollout schedule and none of my volunteers were scheduled to get fiber for over a year. At this point, we had received so much community support surrounding the idea that my wife and I decided to take the plunge and buy a house in the first fiberhood, using it exclusively for the program.”

Barreth’s goal is to attract more startups to Kansas City by offering serious entrepreneurs three months of free rent in the house, including utilities and Google Fiber. The only requirements for these hackers are that they remain dedicated to their startups, follow the house rules -- such as keeping the space clean and turning off the coffee pot after use -- and contribute to the KCSV. The house sleeps five: four entrepreneurs and one visitor who can rent a room in the house for $39 a night through Airbnb.

“Originally I wanted to cycle startups through the houses of 10 volunteer homeowners every 3 months, resulting in 40 startups a year. So far, with only 1 house of our own we've only been able to bring 8 startups to KC, but that's still a big difference.”

While Barreth makes no profit, the program has remained free for residents as a result of money collected from these “fiber-tourists”, and donations from tech enthusiasts.

Six months after Barreth purchased his fiberhouse in the heart of Kansas City Startup Village, Brad Feld decided to purchase one as well. The Colorado-based venture capitalist offered a year of rent-free residence in his home, and free access to Google Fiber for up to five entrepreneurs. Feld, together with a board of prominent members of the tech community, selected the four team members of Handprint, a startup developing a product to make 3D printing easier, to be the first residents.

The Handprint team hails from Boston, MA, and they made their way to the midwest after founder Mike Demarais, 21, moved to KC to check out the fiber in October 2012. After his 3 month stint in Barreth’s hacker home, Demarais went back to Boston to gather the rest of his team to officially bring Handprint to Kansas City. A month later, they were selected to live in Feld’s fiberhouse.

In addition to bringing new innovators to Kansas City, Google Fiber has brought existing members of the KC startup community closer together: there are now 20 startups that call KCSV home. Some of these entrepreneurs are from other parts of the Silicon Prairie, which spans Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and other parts of the midwest. The founders of search engine Leap2 were based in a nearby Kansas City neighborhood when Hanover Heights received Google Fiber. In order to plug into the one gigabit per second Internet, they purchased a house in the center of KSCV and invited other relocating startups to be their housemates.

While access to cheap high speed Internet is certainly an asset to young startups, Barreth believes that KSCV is such an appealing spot for innovators because the cost of living is low, and the dense cluster of startups in a two-block radius has made collaboration easy. Most importantly, he credits the friendly residents for KSCV’s success. “The people in Kansas City are supportive, laid-back, and family-oriented. They are the city’s biggest asset in my mind.”

The next two metros to receive Google Fiber are Provo, Utah and Austin, TX. Google has purchased an existing fiber-optic network from the city of Provo, and plans to roll out service by the end of 2013. The first neighborhoods in Austin will gain access to fiber by mid-2014.

And if your city was not lucky enough to be hand-picked by Google? Recent news from Baltimore shows that these cities can still become fiber hotspots. Upset that they lost to Kansas City last year, Baltimore has taken their own steps to provide affordable high-speed Internet to residents by hiring broadband and communications company Magellan Advisors. The city will work with the firm to find the best way to develop an infrastructure that can deliver Internet speeds that match the city’s technological growth.

At Engine, we know that access to broadband is essential to innovation, so we are excited to follow the ongoing growth in Kansas City as well as the coming developments in Provo, Austin, Baltimore, and other areas that benefit from high-speed Internet access.