Digital Life: Google Fiber is no iPhone

With Google Fiber, folks in Kansas City can binge on Netflix throughout the house without worries about buffering. So there’s that.
With Google Fiber, folks in Kansas City can binge on Netflix throughout the house without worries about buffering. So there’s that. File

The iPhone is now 10 years old, which also happens to be the average age at which American kids get their first iPhone.

Over its decade, the phone’s remained basically the same — a portable touchscreen channeling all the internet offers. It’s been tweaked over the years, but virtually every smartphone since has been essentially the same thing: a glass-faced rectangle that brings the world to you and shares you back.

By the end of last year, more than three in four American adults owned a smartphone. Few of those are likely to venture just about anywhere without one.

The iPhone made Apple cool and rich again. Its bigger legacy came in upturning commerce and community one app at a time. Google stepped into Apple’s slipstream by buying Android and making smartphone life possible for people who couldn’t afford Apple prices.

Combined, they enable nearly all the things that define our current chapter in the Digital Age.

Rate a movie, a restaurant, a doctor. Canvass for a politician. Get a ride, a tool, an errand runner. Check the steps you’ve walked, the exchange rate on those Iraqi dinars you’re certain will be a great investment some day, the latest slight your president is tossing at a cable news talker.

Access to your email, cat videos and your bank account. Swipe right for love, or at least a nice set of abs.

It’s all in your reach, all the time.

Without the iPhone, the gig economy arguably would not have caught on so widely or so quickly. Much of that revolution came in the first few years of the iPhone’s debut. Uber — perhaps the ultimate obvious example of a business model that couldn’t happen without the smartphone — was founded just two years after Jobs announced that “we’re going to reinvent the phone.”

Compare that to Google Fiber, a project that more than 1,000 cities begged for and that landed in Kansas City’s lap. The search behemoth told us that it, too, would dramatically change the world by piping massive bandwidth to your living room.

Google conceded that it didn’t know what would come, but noted time and again that YouTube wasn’t practical before broadband replaced dial-up connections. Google Fiber, in turn, would spawn something else that was previously unimaginable.

We’re still waiting.

Its first 1-gigabit-per-second hook-ups began in Kansas City, Kan., five years ago. It’s been available to tens of thousands of customers for at least three years.

No doubt, it kicked the dominant internet service companies in the cable box. They’ve had to speed up their broadband without hiking prices — at least on a cents-per-megabit basis — to keep pace with Google Fiber.

Google’s selection of Kansas City pumped up the local tech scene. It indirectly gave birth to KC Digital Drive and its wide-ranging efforts to infuse the local economy with high-tech ideas. Kansas City Startup Village, a sort of techie entrepreneur commune, arose from the same buzz. Connecting for Good, which shoots for making the internet as handy in the urban core as it is in suburbia, sprung from Google Fiber’s arrival.

And now folks in Kansas City can binge on Netflix throughout the house without worries about buffering.

For that, cities eased their rules on building permits and saw streets torn up to bury fiber optic cables. Customers waited, for years, for Google Fiber to bring them the whiz-bang service the company promised. Then it told large swaths of neighborhoods, where people had passed on discounts from competitors while they waited, never mind. It’ll come later, maybe.

In the meantime, ideas that trade on the magic of super-fast uploads and downloads haven’t arrived. Something that can only move over gigabit fiber optics? A monster app that restyles the economy, makes us healthier, creates a new way to work?

Anticipating for that game changer feels a little like waiting for Godot, or maybe it’s dial-up.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon