Flickr user Kansas Poetry (Patrick), under a Creative Commons license

Kansas City's Internet is about to get 100 times faster - now, it's got to figure out how to harness that power

Waterfalls. Monuments. Beautiful buildings. They’re all classic postcard pictures, summing up what’s good about a place. Fast download speeds, on the other hand, don't lend themselves to easy advertisement. But they are quickly becoming one of Kansas City's biggest sells.

The twin cities of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri will soon launch a high speed fiber network that is one hundred times speedier than what’s currently available. The cities see the network, which will be rolled out in early 2012, as an opportunity to boost their economies and draw in new business.

“There’s a hotbed of ideas flowing back and forth across this community. I think everyone sees it as an enabler,” says Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, one of many groups brainstorming ways the network will change the region.

But Marcusse admits that the idea of such a fast Internet connection is mind-boggling. Leaping so many orders of magnitude is almost too futuristic for people to wrap their heads around. “It’s an interesting exercise because everybody seems to feel that it’s going to mean something very positive, but we’re still working on figuring out what that is,” Marcusse says.

For some businesses in Kansas City, it's already obvious. Medical schools at both the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri say the higher speeds are a potential game-changer for sharing medical data. A data-processing center will use the higher speed to allow for greater information flow. It’ll even be a boon to speed-dependent stock traders. Kansas City, Missouri, is the home of the third largest stock market in the country.

“Not many people realize that about Kansas City,” says Mike Burke. He’s a former candidate for mayor on the Missouri side, and he's currently serving on the Mayors’ Bistate Innovations Team, a bi-city group that's exploring how the region can get the most out of its new network.

Burke says he hopes the network will bring a stable of start-ups and entrepreneurs to the area. “It will cause these entrepreneurs to maybe do something here that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to do, or because the infrastructure wasn’t there,” says Marcusse. “There will be an advantage in Kansas City that will be difficult to duplicate in other places for three or four or five years.”

Other groups recognize this as well. One, called the Gigabit Challenge, is a business plan competition aimed at spurring the development of new businesses and models to utilize the network. First place is $100,000, and Burke says the contest has drawn interest from around the globe.

Exactly what sort of businesses will result is uncertain, but that’s what exciting – both for Kansas City and for the Google Corporation, which sponsored the network.

“When we made the jump from dial-up to broadband, nobody knew that YouTube or Netflix streaming would be possible. So we’re excited to see what surprises develop,” says Jenna Wandres, a Google policy communications associate.

“Kansas City’s their test tube,” says Burke. He says the company is interested not only in helping the city broaden its business horizons, but also understanding how the average person will use high speed fiber. Wandres says the company hopes to use data gathered in Kansas City to expand the way people use the Internet.

Business leaders aren't the only ones excited about the project. Officials from a variety of government sectors say they will use the new system to improve efficiency and efficacy. “I just got out of a meeting with 15 different school superintendents who are brainstorming about how to integrate the network into their classrooms, and more importantly, out of the classroom,” Burke says.

Schools are considering giving laptops to students, updating lesson plans, and even using the network to hold class when getting to school is impossible. Google’s fiber network could mean the end of snow days for Kansas City schoolchildren.

“These might be experiments today, but four or five years from now they may be the norm,” says Burke. 

Hopes are high in both cities, but both also recognize that the impact of the network is difficult to predict. They’re hoping for new business and more jobs, and Marcusse and Burke say they’ve already heard about companies considering a move to Kansas City to take advantage of the higher speeds.

But Burke says he's less concerned with the specifics than a general change of mood. “Have we brought in new jobs? Have we created investments? Have we improved our quality of life?' he asks. "That’s going to be our measure of success."

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