This was true even of Google employees, both the folks on the ground in Kansas City and the execs who are managing Google Fiber from Mountain View, Calif. “What can you do with Google Fiber?” I’d ask, and I’d often get an answer like, “Anything you want.” Technically, this is true. It’s also singularly unhelpful. During my time in Kansas, when I finally got some free time with a machine connected to Google Fiber, I couldn’t find any better answers for what I should do with it. My first instinct was to try out all the things that strain today’s Internet lines—I loaded up a lot of Web pages, I tried to stream lots of videos, and I even attempted to illegally download some movies. Those things worked perfectly well. And then I didn’t know what else to do. I had finally found the broadband nirvana I’d always dreamed about. So why was I so bored?
The inability to anticipate the utility of Google Fiber is understandable. Thomas Watson, the legendary IBM CEO, is often quoted as having said, in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Similarly there’s a story that Bill Gates once declared that “640k is more memory that anyone will ever need.” These are both misquotes, but they each get at the way today’s technological needs can blind us to tomorrow’s possibilities. After all, it was true that, in the 1940s, most people didn’t need a computer. In order for us to get to a time when computers could be personal machines, we had to enter a cycle in which computers would gradually offer more and more utility, creating wider demand, which would in turn prompt more uses for PCs, and so on and so forth until we all had Windows.
Gigabit broadband is like that. For it to become truly useful and necessary, we’ll need to see a long-term feedback loop of utility and acceptance. First, super-fast lines must allow us to do things that we can’t do with the pedestrian Internet. This will prompt more people to demand gigabit lines, which will in turn invite developers to create more apps that require high speed, and so on. What I discovered in Kansas City is that this cycle has not yet begun. Or, as Ars Technica put it recently, “The rest of the Internet is too slow for Google Fiber.”
But I also saw small signs that people are beginning to think about ways to get this cycle rolling. Unbeknownst to most techies in Silicon Valley, Kansas City has a thriving startup scene, and a few local entrepreneurs have been trying to attract smart people to the city to make use of Google Fiber. Ben Barreth, a Web developer, recently purchased a modest house in one of the first neighborhoods to be wired with Fiber. He calls it the “Home for Hackers,” and he’s letting smart techie types from outside the city live in the house rent-free for three months.
I spent a day at the Hacker Home talking to two of its current residents. One of them, Synthia Payne, is a middle-aged singer who’s working on a company called Cyberjammer, which would let musicians in different parts of the world jam together live, in real time. The other resident, Nick Budidharma, is a gamer who just graduated from high school and is starting a multiplayer game hosting service. Both of their firms require fast Internet, though hardly gigabit speeds. Still, they said that after living with Fiber, extra-speedy broadband had become integrated into their lives.
For instance, both Payne and Budidharma find themselves relying more on cloud-based services like Dropbox to store their files. Budidharma says that he doesn’t spend as much time thinking about which pictures to upload to Facebook, as there’s almost no upload delay—“I just throw them all up there.” He’s also noticed a huge improvement in multiplayer games. In the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, “there’s a thing called peeker’s advantage—if you quickly peek around a corner that someone else is already looking down, the person with the better latency will see the other person first,” Budidharma says. With Google Fiber, that “can be close to a 1-second advantage—I can see people a little faster than they can see me. And I’ve noticed that I’ve been consistently scoring five or 10 kills higher than I normally do.”
Another company that’s looking to make use of Google Fiber is SightDeck, a firm started by a couple Hollywood effects gurus that’s working on a product to allow people in different parts of the world to meet in a single, virtual workplace. It works like this: I stood in front of a projection screen in Kansas City, while a SightDeck employee stood in front of a similar screen in Los Angeles. Two cameras connected to high-speed Internet lines were aimed at each of us. Then, Clynt Wynn, SightDeck’s user experience lead, turned the system on. Now the remote employee was projected on the screen next to me, and I was projected on the screen next to him. What’s more, superimposed on the screen behind us was an image of Google Earth. When either of us reached out to touch the screen, we could interact with the planet—when we swiped the screen, the Google Earth image would scroll or zoom. (Here’s a video demo of the system.)
SightDeck, then, is something like a life-size video call with no lag. It was pretty cool, but in truth even this didn’t make full use of Google Fiber’s power. Indeed, after the demonstration, Wynn pointed out that the building where SightDeck’s office is located does not yet have access to Google Fiber. The demo I saw was running on a conventional high-speed commercial broadband line. SightDeck would be even better with Fiber, but it certainly didn’t need a gigabit to function.
By the end of my time in Kansas, I’d thus resigned myself to never seeing the full potential of Google Fiber. My next stop would be Mountain View, where I’d try to figure out if Google knows what to do with it.
Update, March 12, 2013, 7 p.m.: This sentence was added post-publication to clarify the scope of the Google Fiber project. (Return.)
Correction, March 12, 2013: Due to a production error, the caption for the Google Fiber Space showroom photo incorrectly identified the location of the showroom in Kansas City, Kan. It is in Kansas City, Mo.