The New York Times, September 6, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A team of computer programmers here set out to learn how many cute kitten photos can be downloaded in one second on their Internet network, one of the fastest in the country.
The answer: 612.
A trivial pursuit? Perhaps. But when your city has Internet capacity to spare and is not exactly a hotbed for tech start-ups, figuring out what you are supposed to do with all that speed is a challenge.
It has been a little more than three years since the Kansas Cities — both Kansas and Missouri — won a national competition to be the first places to get Google Fiber, a fiber-optic network that includes cable television and Internet running at one gigabit a second. That is about 100 times as fast as the average connection in the United States (on which it would take about two-and-a-half minutes to download 612 kitten photos).
But be careful what you wish for. After a few million in waived permit fees and granting Google free access to public land, the area is finding out that Google Fiber is so fast, it’s hard to know what to do with it.
Speed is an obsession at Google. But the average connection speed in the United States is about 10 megabits per second, good for 14th in the world, according to the Internet company Akamai Technologies. That was Google’s impetus for starting Fiber, which has expanded beyond the Kansas City area, to Provo, Utah, and Austin, Tex.
The company is in discussions with nine other metro areas, including Atlanta, Phoenix and Portland, Ore. Chattanooga, Tenn., and several other cities have fiber networks of their own, not connected with Google.
Google’s ambitions do not come without critics. Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said he preferred Internet service to be kept under local control, as in Chattanooga.
“If a city has to make a choice between being dependent on Google or being dependent on a national cable company, they should be dependent on Google,” Mr. Mitchell said. But, he added, “it’s a false choice.”
Municipal networks have less incentive to collect users’ information because they aren’t in the business of selling ads like Google, Mr. Mitchell said. Also, instead of selling the network to another company, as Google could, cities have more control over what happens to it.
And Whitney Terrell, a novelist and professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who is a critic of the Fiber project, chafes at the influence of the Silicon Valley company. “It felt like a righteous invading tech company coming in to tell us how to run the city,” he said.
Faster Internet helps Google in lots of ways. The more time users spend searching the web or watching YouTube videos, the more ads Google sells and the more Google services people use. The company could also use Fiber to test new services like household-targeted TV commercials. And some analysts have speculated that Google is building Fiber to prod other cable and Internet companies into increasing their speeds.
Kevin Lo, the general manager of Google Fiber, said the Internet giant had plenty of patience to see what percolated in the cities with its high-speed network. “We need to encourage developers who have great ideas, but we also need to build a critical mass of people who can use those applications. You need both for the breakthroughs to happen,” he wrote in an email.
In time, this kind of superfast Internet access could be as important as the jump from dial-up modems to broadband. But for now, Aaron Deacon, managing director of the KC Digital Drive, a nonprofit that is trying to figure out new ways to use Google Fiber, said people were expecting too much.
So instead of something otherworldly, Mr. Deacon said the more likely outcome would be souped-up versions of things that already existed. Take Avid Communications, a commercial phone and Internet service provider in Kansas City, Mo. The company used Google Fiber to power the fire alarms and elevators in a local apartment building. It also built a network of security cameras across the city’s Janssen Place neighborhood.
Economically speaking, the biggest benefit may end up being the way fiber has energized the local start-ups. The “Hacker House” is a sort of techno commune where young programmers — most of them men — eat fast food and start companies.
On a recent afternoon, Brandon Schatz, creator of a photo-sharing service called SportsPhotos.com, demonstrated, with scary fast typing skills, how Fiber lets him upload about a thousand photographs in the space of a few minutes. “That should’ve taken hours,” he said.
Programmers have made a sport out of trying to slow Google Fiber down by using online video games and other data-heavy applications to perform the digital equivalent of turning on every faucet in the house at once: Hence, the “Too Many Kittens for Broadband” experiment, part of a hack-a-thon sponsored last year by the KC Digital Drive.
The results would have disappointed even the most fervent cat lover. “Visually, all that happened was flickering cat images,” said Josh Bookout, a software engineer at Garmin International who volunteered on the project. “It was like seeing a slide show way too fast.”