They’ve been stringing cable for months now throughout Kansas City on both the Kansas and Missouri sides in what have been dubbed “fiberhoods.” It’s all part of an extensive pilot program to gauge Google’s latest—and some would say surprising—foray into the high-speed Internet and television world. It’s called Google Fiber. It’s an Internet service that’s five times faster than the roughly two megabits-per-second speeds that most Americans currently have in their homes. And it could change the way we communicate for the better.

“There is a lot of excitement for Google Fiber,” says Jenna Wandres, a spokesperson for the Google Fiber team in Mountain View, Calif. “Kansas City will be at the forefront of new high-speed app development, and its residents, developers and local leaders are very enthusiastic about innovating with gigabit speeds.” And while Wandres is quick to point out that the roll-out in Kansas City is not a test, the nation is looking on to see if the end results here justify the means in other parts of the country.

Despite high initial costs and ongoing criticism that low-income residents might be left out of the online experience, more than one thousand communities around the country vied for the opportunity to become a launching pad for Google’s new service, which promises to take the Internet from the megabit to the gigabit experience. In Philadelphia, for instance, City Councilman Bill Green made a video inviting the tech giant to a town characterized by its firsts. “Every home in the country should have gigabit,” he said. In Baton Rouge, Roger Hodgson’s “Give a Little Bit” song was remade into “Give a Gigabit.” Sarasota, Fla., renamed one its islands “Google Island,” while Topeka, Kan., temporarily called itself “Google.” Clearly there was a lot of competition to land the service.

First Stop: Gigabits

It was during a press conference in Kansas City in July that Patrick Pichette, Google’s CFO and a key sponsor of Google Fiber, first revealed not only what would happen in the Midwest town, but also how gigabit changes the tech landscape. “We’re at a crossroads,” he said during the press conference. “The average American today has roughly 5.8 megabits of speed and pays roughly the same thing as 50 years ago. But there’s hope because in the last few years the technology has evolved dramatically.”

Today, Google is promising Internet speeds that are 500 times faster than anything most of us have seen. Almost 90 percent of these fiberhoods in Kansas City have already signed up for the service, which will deliver one gigabit of Internet speed for $70 a month (add another $50 a month for high-def TV). Google waived the $300 installation fee for early subscribers, though there’s no telling how long that deal will last if the service goes national.

“Users will visit a website less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds,” says Wandres. “Gigabit speeds will allow our users to do everything they do online today a lot faster. But gigabit speeds open up entirely new possibilities for the future of the Web: interactive, global online education; doctors’ appointments by video with 3D imaging; instantaneous cloud storage and new applications we haven’t even thought of. In the same way that the transition from dial-up to broadband made possible the emergence of online video and countless other applications, ultra high-speed bandwidth will lead to new and unpredictable innovations,” she says.

There are already local developers and companies in Kansas City thinking about ways to use a gigabit to develop newer, better and faster high-speed applications. Wandres predicts that a faster Web experience will ideally spur innovation of next-generation apps far beyond what’s happening on the first leg of this, for lack of a better phrase, “Google Fiber tour.”
But can Google compete with Comcast in Philly or Time Warner and Verizon both based in New York? These service providers have been laying the groundwork for higher speed and higher-definition platforms for years.

Google’s new business model is working in Kansas City where the company seems to have an advantage thanks to its own online advertising (Google controls almost half of all advertising on the Web) to subsidize early costs of everything from laying down fiber to building its own high-tech broadband ecosystem. Google also has an insider’s perspective on not only how customers are using the Web, but also on who they are and what else they want from TV and mobile communication. Knowing these online habits is proving to be vital in reaching consumers with a newer, faster alternative to what competitors are offering. That may not please the competition, of course, (there are several lawsuits already pending), but it could mean a big step forward for tech innovation—an industry that arguably could once again set the U.S.. apart from the rest of the world—even Asia—if successful.

Consider, for example, Google’s entry into mobile technology, successfully taking on heavy hitters like Apple in Cupertino, Calif. The same is happening with TV. Google is introducing its own TV service that makes watching content more like surfing the Web. The connection between TV and Internet is undeniable at this point (take Apple’s own Apple TV). A Nielsen study even suggests that more people are watching online video in the same way they once accessed television shows. Google has an unprecedented Big Brother-like peek inside the consumer experience—one that could be a major factor in predicting whether something like Google Fiber will work well outside of Kansas City.

“Users want speed,” says Wandres. “When browsing the Web, users will only wait 400 milliseconds (or the blink of an eye) for a page to load. The demand for rich content like online video streaming and social media is huge.” Wandres says that the apps and services through which people are watching streaming videos necessitate faster Internet speeds.

Beyond Kansas City

In a September 2012 article in Time magazine, reporter Sam Gustin championed gigabit speeds, particularly Google Fiber, for two reasons: 1) It catches the U.S.. up with the rest of the world, and 2) It provides competition from a new source that could conceivably force costs down even as they go up based on service features.

“What is Google Fiber about?” Gustin asks. “It’s about serving notice to the existing U.S. broadband community, and vividly illustrating how badly we’ve fallen behind in Internet broadband speed competitiveness. Last time I checked, the U.S. was ranked 28th among developed countries in broadband speeds. That’s embarrassing,” Gustin writes.

“What the U.S. needs now is for private companies to work with public entities to build our information infrastructure. Remember, this is not about Google going national with a big broadband effort to compete with the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable—yet. Rather, it’s a reminder that building out our nation’s next-generation information grid is good for people, businesses and society.”

In a post-election year, the message may sometimes get diluted, but this sort of tech advancement is still one of the most viable ways to grow business, especially when you consider how often we talk about what innovation really means to the future of business in the U.S. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has said that Google’s inroads with gigabit will be a “model for other metropolitan areas to follow.”

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business in Cambridge, Mass., also predicts that gigabit speeds will have an enormous impact on the tech landscape, both in the way applications are developed and how they are inevitably used.

“Gigabit’s biggest near-term effect will be an explosion of real-time video for chat, movies, videoconferencing, tele-presence and other interactions between people,” says Brynjolfsson. “In the longer run, 3D video gaming and new applications that we haven’t invented yet will become more important.” The implications are far reaching, he says. “Much of the impact will not show up in the formal productivity statistics, because the GDP doesn’t count free goods. But it will affect our living standards by giving us ways to be more connected and entertained,” he says. “The local loop is always the biggest challenge, but I see the technical issues as being overcome soon.”
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