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Google Fiber’s move to Austin, Texas, could be good for Kansas City

Updated: 2013-04-10T04:52:03Z

By SCOTT CANON

The Kansas City Star

Exclusivity ain’t everything.

Some company in a hyper-wired world, analysts say, can actually be a good thing.

Google Inc. confirmed plans Tuesday to take its at-home, light-speed Internet service to Austin, Texas. And although that would seem to dull the luster Kansas City enjoys as the only market where the service is rolling out, the broadening of Google Fiber to the Lone Star state might actually make it more useful here.

The move drops the service into one of the most tech-happy places in the country that isn’t Silicon Valley or Boston. That, in turn, might entice a Texas-sized community of computer-centric entrepreneurs to develop uses for the gigabit-per-second hookups of Google Fiber.

This could mean that Google sees the venture as more than a backwater try-out. The promise to wire Austin with fiberoptic lines to residential customers could tempt more big-budget companies to think about ways to take full advantage of such home connections.

“If you’re building something at gigabit speeds but only Kansas City has it, that’s not enough to move the needle for somebody big to invest in applications,” said Kansas State University computer scientist Dan Andresen. “While (taking Google Fiber to Austin) may remove a little bit of the, ‘Whoo, we’re special’ thing, it may create greater opportunity for businesses in Kansas City that have begun to work on uses for it.

“Bigger markets open up the market generally.”

Analysts note that any network becomes more valuable as it acquires connections. Facebook becomes valuable as it is populated by more “friends.” The Internet wasn’t nearly as exciting when it only connected a few universities. The telephone became wildly more useful as more people, well, got telephones.

Likewise, as Google Fiber builds out across Kansas City, it allows huge piles of data to move almost instantaneously from home to home. But such transfers can’t zip anywhere but across town if Kansas City’s the only place with such connections. So adding Austin to the mix could be a monumental step to creating a network that’s not only fast, but broad.

“We need companies to develop applications. To do that, they need to see not just a static test market, but one that is growing,” said Aaron Deacon, the managing director of KC Digital Drive. His organization was formed to discover and deploy uses for gigabit connections.

“It’s one thing if you’ve got 50,000 homes or whatever in Kansas City,” he said. “But if you’ve got 1 million homes across 10 markets, then things really start to change.”

Google remained characteristically coy about whether going to Austin is a start toward becoming a national Internet service provider.

“We’re taking Google Fiber one step at a time,” the company said on its website. “We’re focusing on Kansas City and Austin right now.”

A year-plus away

Google said it would launch much the same service in Austin as in Kansas City. The company said it expected pricing to be “roughly similar.”

Google expects to start hooking up some homes in Austin in mid-2014. That reflects a less optimistic schedule than it announced when it chose Kansas City two years before, but a faster rollout than it ultimately delivered.

A Google spokeswoman said the work in Austin will not slow progress in Kansas City, “not in the slightest.” Still, some homes in Austin will be lit up with the service before it’s available in some neighborhoods in south Kansas City and north of the Missouri River.

“Kansas City will remain the only city in the country with Google Fiber for the next year and a half,” said Jenna Wandres, the Google spokeswoman. “That’s supporting a tech scene that’s growing and thriving.”

The Internet search giant began installations in homes in November and so far has reached only a few neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kan. The company won’t say how many customers have its service.

Like Kansas City, Austin has a significant ring of fiberoptic Internet “backbone” already in place. And like Kansas City, Kan., the process of installing a Google Fiber network could be made easier because Austin has a city-owned utility, Austin Energy, that could streamline the access to utility poles and underground conduit needed to run wires to homes.

Austin has the state’s largest research university and a sizable high-tech business community. Apple, Dell and Cisco all have offices there amid a vibrant high-tech startup community fed by the engineering and computer science talent streaming out of the University of Texas. That might make it more ready to take advantage of the gigabit-per-second connections — roughly 100 times faster than most home Internet speeds.

International Strategy & Investment Group noted in a report Tuesday that “Austin appears to have very strong population growth, with higher median and per-capita income, and a lower unemployment rate, than in Kansas City … Austin appears to have a lower TV penetration rate. Coupled with the higher per-capita income, this might mean that Austin could have more” residents who get their video programming over the Internet rather than by subscribing to cable or satellite services.

By taking the service to Austin, said Glen Friedman of the Ideas & Solutions broadband consulting agency, Google will draw more attention.

“It’s a very tech-savvy place. It’s a much more visible market because of the tech activity that’s happening in Austin,” he said. “It may create even more attention on what’s happening in Kansas City because it can be seen as a picture of Google’s performance for what other people might get.”

Andresen, the K-State computer scientist, said there is some danger that the Google Fiber move to Austin could diminish its power as a draw for Kansas City.

“You’d no longer have something unique that could only be found in Kansas City,” he said.

Austin giddy

The Tuesday announcement in Austin lacked the surprise and thrill that came when Google picked Kansas City as its launch pad for the service two years ago and beat out 1,100 other communities to be a testing ground.

Yet Austin city officials spoke gleefully about following Kansas City as the second market where Google Fiber will be offered.

“Austin is on a roll,” said Austin City Council member Laura Morrison. “Google’s investment in super high-speed broadband infrastructure will turbo charge us.”

Stacey Higginbotham, a writer for the GigaOM website and a resident of Austin, said the move gives Google a second test bed for its next-generation service, “and having more test beds makes sense.”

“I do know more people here might have known what a gigabit is coming into things,” Higginbotham said.

As in Kansas City, Google said it will offer free hook-ups to public institutions like schools and libraries. And, following the model it set in Kansas City, it will wire those neighborhoods that sign up in the greatest numbers during pre-registration drives. It’s Austin TV package will include the Longhorn Network of University of Texas sports.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the arrival of Google Fiber underscores the state’s role in innovation and participation in such things as the U.S. space program.

“It vastly increases the odds that the next big thing, the next Google,” Perry said, “might happen here in the great state of Texas.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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