One afternoon in January, I went to visit some Google employees who’d offered to show me one of the company’s latest and greatest innovations. This isn’t unusual: I live about 10 minutes from Google’s headquarters, and I regularly stop by its campus to see its cool new stuff. This time, though, my trip involved two flights, a lengthy layover, and a suspicious wife: “Why do you need to go to Kansas City to write about Google?”
It was a good question. In March of 2010, Google announced its intention to build super-fast fiber-optic Internet service in “a small number of trial locations across the United States.” A year later, after receiving more than 1,000 applications from cities and towns across the country, Google chose Kansas City as its first location. Last November, Google began installing service in people’s homes. For $70 a month, the company offers Kansas City residents a 1-gigabit Internet line—the fastest home Internet service available anywhere in the world, about 150 times faster than the average American broadband speed of 6.7 Mbps. (You also get 1 terabyte of online storage as part of the deal, something Google normally sells for $50 a month.) For $120 a month, you get the 1-Gb line plus cable-like TV service, as well as a Nexus 7 tablet that you can use as your remote. There’s also a “free” plan: After you pay a $300 construction fee—which you can split into 12 payments of $25—Google will provide your home with a 5-Mbps Internet line for “at least seven years,” and probably indefinitely. (Legally, the company needed to provide an end date for service.)
These are amazing services at unbelievable prices. For about the same fee that many Americans currently pay for cable, Google is offering Internet speeds that, until now, were available only to big companies for thousands of dollars a month.
Therein lies the mystery. Google’s gigabit initiative, called Google Fiber, has sparked a round of questions across the tech industry. Is Google looking to become an Internet service provider? Does it simply want to spur other ISPs into providing faster service? And why wire Kansas City rather than, say, Silicon Valley or New York? And, finally, why gigabit Internet—what does Google expect people to do with the world’s fastest broadband service?
In this piece, I’ll focus on the last two questions: What has it been like for the people of Kansas City to live and work with the world’s fastest Internet? In my next column, I’ll examine Google’s strategic interests in Fiber—why is the search company building its own Internet lines?
One of the first places I visited in Kansas City was the Fiber Space, a lavish showroom that Google built to show what’s possible with a 1-Gb Internet line. (The space is on State Line Road, which divides the Missouri and Kansas sides of Kansas City; last year Google began deploying Fiber on the Kansas side, but this year it will launch service to houses on the Missouri side, too.)* The Fiber Space is an odd place—an effort to render visible and fun something that you can’t really see. It looks a bit like a futuristic Ikea, with TVs, laptops, and tablet computers tastefully arranged in several stylishly decorated mock living rooms. (If, as rumored, Google is thinking about building retail stores of its own, I bet they’ll look like the Fiber Space.)
At Fiber Space, I sat beside Carlos Casas, one of the company’s community outreach managers, on a couch in front of a big TV connected to a laptop. To prove that we were connected to a real Fiber line, one of Casas’ assistants loaded up Google Fiber’s speed test page. A few seconds later, we saw the astounding results: The computer was getting 938.24 Mbps download speeds, and uploads were at 911.67 Mbps. By comparison, my AT&T U-Verse home Internet line—which costs me about $60 a month, only slightly less than Google Fiber’s 1-Gb plan—gets downloads of about 22 Mbps and uploads of 3 Mbps. Google’s download speeds are 42 times faster than mine and its uploads are 303 times faster. When I saw those numbers, I had to stifle a few tears.
Casas’ assistant pulled up a high-definition video on YouTube. It started playing immediately. Then he opened another browser tab and launched another 1080p video. Then another and another and another—he kept going until he had five videos playing simultaneously. (He’d muted the sound.) Next he clicked on each tab and fast-forwarded each video to a random spot in the middle. They started playing from that spot instantly, with none of them sputtering or slowing in any way. “I hate racing that little gray bar when I’m watching videos on YouTube,” Casas said. “You’re always like, ‘Oh, it’s going to catch up, it’s going to catch up!’ With this, it’s never going to catch up. Your video isn’t going to stop playing.”
To be sure, this was pretty cool. And yet it wasn’t mind-blowing. Indeed, it felt a little underwhelming. After all, who needs to play five HD videos at the same time? If that’s Google’s best demo of its superfast service, what does it suggest about what regular people will do with it? What’s more, the demo didn’t even begin to approach the limits of Google Fiber—with five HD videos playing simultaneously there were still hundreds of megabits left on the pipe. When I got back home a few days later, I replicated the same test on my home broadband line and experienced only a few hiccups.
And this gets to the fundamental problem with Google Fiber: It’s totally awesome, and totally unnecessary. During my time in Kansas City, I spoke to several local businesspeople, aspiring startup founders, and a few city boosters. They were all thrilled that Google had come to town, and the few who’d gotten access to the Google pipe said they really loved it. But I couldn’t find a single person who’d found a way to use Google Fiber to anywhere near its potential—or even a half or quarter of what it can do. It was even difficult to find people who could fully utilize Google Fiber in their imaginations. As hard as people tried, few could even think up ways to do something truly amazing with the world’s fastest Internet.