Google Inc.’s plans for stretching its TV and light-speed Internet across the Kansas City market include deals with more than a dozen cities, but gaping holes exist — especially in the Missouri suburbs.
By SCOTT CANON and JENNIFER BHARGAVA
The Kansas City Star Special to The Star
In Overland Park, the California-based tech behemoth responded to a momentary hesitation from the city council by putting off, indefinitely, efforts to stitch the prosperous suburb into the fold of Google Fiber.
The other unmistakable gap in the market is marked by working-class Independence. The Jackson County suburb’s 115,000-plus residents could go a long way toward giving Google a better return on the investment it’s made to build a network and string fiber optic lines directly to homes.
Yet Google says it never opened talks with Independence officials and is not on the verge of doing so.
“We hope to be able to expand to more communities in the future, but for now we’re focusing our energy and resources on engineering, designing, and building a new fiber network for the communities” that already have deals with Google, company spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said in an email.
Independence City Manager Robert Heacock confirmed that Google recently told the city that it is not prepared to expand in that direction, but he said Independence is prepared to engage in discussions about Google Fiber if the position changed.
Google Fiber has signed agreements to sell service to the north, west and south of Independence. The company has said it’s trying to keep its construction costs down by deploying only in neighborhoods where demand from customers justifies the expense. Ultimately including large suburbs such as Overland Park and Independence in its build-out could help the company greater exploit economies of scale.
What remains unclear is whether the lack of formal agreements between Google and various cities will necessarily dictate that they’d be among the last in the market offered the service. The project has run behind schedule almost since the company chose Kansas City, Kan., as its starting point over more than 1,000 other cities that vied for the project.
The company has yet to offer service to all the neighborhoods that qualified last year — by virtue of enough residents putting down $10 commitments — in central Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan. The company remains vague about when neighborhoods in south Kansas City or in the city north of the Missouri river will find out if Google is going to sell them service.
It may be 2015 or later before Google Fiber is built out in the limits of Kansas City.
Google’s Wandres said hookups in the suburbs will likely come only after all, or nearly all, of the customers in qualifying neighborhoods are offered service.
The company has said that coming to terms with those outlying towns is critical to the often complex engineering need to plan how it will expand the network.
So far, Google Fiber has signed agreements with the two Kansas Citys, Olathe, Leawood, Fairway, Mission Hills, Mission Woods, Lenexa, Merriam, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, Shawnee, Westwood and Westwood Hills in Kansas. On the Missouri side, it has deals with Gladstone, Grandview, Lee’s Summit and Raytown.
Along with Overland Park and Independence, deals are noticeably lacking with Liberty, Blue Springs, North Kansas City and Parkville. Wandres said that as in Independence, there are no ongoing talks with those communities.
“We hope to be able expand to more communities in the future,” Wandres said.
City officials in several communities hope she’s right.
As of now, however, the message from Google is loud and clear: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
In the past several months, most of the communities snubbed by Google Fiber have been gently nudging the company, through phone calls or meetings, to talk about a possible deal.
In Cass County, several cities joined forces to persuade Google Fiber to come their way.
Back in early July, officials from Belton, Raymore and other Cass County communities held a meeting with local Google Fiber representative Rachel Hack to discuss bringing the high speed Internet to their cities.
In the wake of agreements signed with Lee’s Summit and Grandview, the cities hoped they would be the next step, said Jay Leipzig, Belton’s community and economic development director.
Although Hack said Google would take their interest into consideration, she made no promises. The cities haven’t heard anything since.
The cities are not giving up hope.
“We’ve talked about pushing Google even further, but we don’t want to be a hindrance,” Leipzig said. “Google has been very receptive to us and they made it clear there’s nothing we can really do at this point to change anything. We’re still sending them emails once in a while to let them know we’re still interested. We don’t want them to forget about us.”
When Lee’s Summit signed its agreement, Blue Springs was another city knocking on Google Fiber’s door.
“I would love for Blue Springs to sign a similar agreement to Lee’s Summit,” said Blue Springs city administrator Eric Johnson.
But he acknowledged that after Blue Springs contacted Google, the company made it clear it wasn’t ready to discuss anything with the city yet.
Now, they wait.
Despite being held at arm’s length, Johnson remains confident that at some point, Google will want to meet with Blue Springs.
“We’re optimistic, but we don’t want to create an expectation for our citizens that it is definitely coming, because honestly, it might not,” he said. “I expect municipal leaders in similar situations are saying the same thing. We understand that these things typically don’t come as quickly as we want. We just have to be patient and wait for it.”
And if Google Fiber does come around, Blue Springs will welcome it with open arms, he added.
“We’re contacted almost daily, through email and Facebook from residents wanting to know when Blue Springs is going to get Google Fiber,” Johnson said. “We’re just letting citizens know we’ve let Google know we’re interested and we’re hopeful the company will turn to us when it’s ready.”
Parkville is also seeing a high demand for Google Fiber.
So many residents have been asking about when the service is coming, the city added a special Google Fiber section on its website, informing people of the latest updates.
Right now, it’s letting residents know that Google is aware of Parkville’s interest and the city will be contacted when the company is ready to discuss expanding into the community.
“Parkville immediately recognized the importance of the Google Fiber announcement for the region,” said Lauren Palmer, the city administrator. “Parkville hosted a Missouri Municipal League event two years ago and recruited Rachel Hack as the speaker. It was her fourth day on the job. Parkville leaders continue to communicate periodically with Ms. Hack for updates.”
Palmer said Parkville is eager to work with Google to negotiate expansion into the city, but she understands the process takes time.
Liberty confirmed a similar tale.
In May, the city coordinated a meeting with community partners including the Liberty Public School District, William Jewell College and Liberty Hospital, with Hack to discuss potentially bringing Google Fiber to the city.
“After that meeting, we did contact Google to express our willingness to work with them to bring fiber to our community,” said Liberty communications manager Sara Cooke. “We still are interested in talking with Google about a partnership and hope that we are offered that opportunity.”
With its demographic of young families and college students, she pointed out that Liberty would be a perfect fit for the high speed Internet service.
But she knows the city will have to wait.
“We understand it’s their business model,” Cooke said. “But we’re not giving up hope they’ll come around.”
Waiting seems to be the name of the game when it comes to Google Fiber, whether a city has signed an agreement or not.
“It’s a long process, even after you make a deal,” said Leipzig, of Belton. “Because even if a city signed an agreement today, it would still take years before Google Fiber was installed.”
Along with a cable-like TV service (still lacking the popular AMC channel), the top-end Internet connections sold with Google Fiber move data at a rate of 1-gigabit-per second. That’s roughly 100 times faster than broadband in most American homes. Such speeds are available to many businesses. Google Fiber is distinctive because it sells such speeds at home consumer prices.