KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Smack in the middle of the nation, this city is about as far as possible from the hubs of high-tech innovation on both coasts.
An effort last spring to excite new Web entrepreneurs in a place better known for cattle drives and barbecue sauce turned up just a dozen people.
Then Google blew into town.
The company, dominant in the virtual world, began digging actual holes in the ground and connected homes and businesses to Internet speeds 100 times faster than most Americans have ever seen.
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Three months into Google’s much-publicized experiment, signs of new business life have emerged. Nick Budidharma, an 18-year-old game developer, drove with his parents from Hilton Head, S.C., to live in a “hacker home” that’s connected to Google’s Fiber broadband network. Synthia Payne uprooted from Denver and landed here to launch a startup that aims to let musicians jam real-time online. That sleepy weekly gathering for Web entrepreneurs recently attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 260 business types, investors and city officials.
Just as the move from dial-up modems to higher-speed Internet connections helped launch Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, policymakers and Google hope this next leap forward will breed a whole new slate of innovations.
The effort also is turning up the heat on cable companies, which now have to compete for consumers who can get faster speeds at lower monthly costs. Those telecom companies have begun bidding against Google to wire firms and city buildings with equally high-octane Internet.
“What Google is providing is a catalyst. This infrastructure is enormously important to create a ripple effect of entrepreneurial activity,” said Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the Kauffman Foundation, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit helping local startups and officials turn around this city.
It’s an audacious and unproven experiment, the equivalent of replacing country roads with the Autobahn speedway and then assuming Formula One race cars will materialize. The question is whether it is a publicity stunt or an example of what could happen around the country if more cities had access to such fast connections.
The ripples so far are small. About a dozen startups have launched in the first neighborhood to get Google’s 1-gigabit-per-second service. Leading economic indicators such as employment growth haven’t budged. There is a frothy excitement, but even city officials who dub the region Silicon Prairie admit it will be hard to measure how the new network will lead to economic progress other than a general sense of activity.
Of course, Google has much to gain if the test in Kansas City works. It won’t say how much it spent to build the network, but it wants faster speeds so consumers will search more, put more videos on YouTube and shift all emails and documents to its cloud system of servers. By doing so, the company gathers more data to build more complete portraits of users and boost its $37 billion business of selling customized ads.
For new entrepreneurs here, Google’s motives don’t matter. The faster and cheaper service opens up opportunities.
EyeVerify, a security software firm, was in a part of the city where AT&T was the only Internet service provider, offering a maximum of 5 megabits-per-second speeds for $80 a month.
That turned the company’s daily tests of its software into a hair-pulling exercise in patience. The firm uses an individual’s unique eyeball-vein patterns to secure smartphones and other devices.
But sending files with thousands of high-definition photos of eyeballs took hours to deliver and required constant baby-sitting of outboxes to make sure files went through.
On a recent afternoon, founder Toby Rush sat in the firm’s new office space in Google’s Hanover Heights “fiberhood” and sent several of those files within minutes.
Nearby on this former industrial strip in Hanover Heights, a dozen other startups have taken refuge in Craftsman-style homes. All connected to Google’s network, they call themselves Kansas City Startup Village.
There is a “Home for Hackers,” donated by a local resident who lets entrepreneurs live and work there for free.
Investors are showing greater interest, too. A microfinance investment firm called Justine Petersen opened an office in the city last year with hopes of investing more in the burgeoning tech community. The St. Louis-based company is looking at creating another Home for Hackers.
The hope is that newcomers will drive the kind of economic growth the city seeks.
There is debate over whether access to the Internet betters an economy. Telecom operator Ericsson said in 2011 that doubling broadband speeds increases gross domestic product by 0.3 percent. The Federal Communications Commission has said areas that got broadband for the first time experienced a creation of 2.6 jobs for every job lost.