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In Kansas City, Superfast Internet And A Digital Divide

Since Google Fiber rolled out gigabit broadband in Kansas City four years ago, residents have enjoyed fast Internet connections, including at what locals call "the world's fastest Starbucks."

Kansas City has some of the Internet best service anywhere. Providers there jostle for customers who can now expect broadband that's about 100 times faster than the national average.

But, four years after Google Fiber landed in Kansas City, people are still trying to figure just what do with all that speed.

Kansas City's a modest, Midwestern place. Residents are proud of their barbecue and baseball team. But Aaron Deacon says that now there's something else: inexpensive, world-class Internet.

"Yeah, it's the best," he says. "Maybe Hong Kong's a little bit better than us, and Seoul."

Deacon runs KC Digital Drive, a group set up to make the most out ultra-high speed Internet available in the city for $70 a month. "You have faster Internet here than anyplace else, and you can get it for cheaper than anyplace else. Because Google chose this market to build out in first."

The network's still not done, but Internet connections running at close to one gigabit-per-second are easy to find.

"We're sitting at the world's fastest Starbucks," says Ilya Tabakh, the COO of Edge Up Sports, a website for sports stats and news. He points out that the coffee shop has laptops hooked up to Google Fiber and says the difference is most visible on YouTube.

"Click on a video, it's loaded," Tabakh says. "Click on another video, it's loaded. Click on another video, loaded. There is no waiting for anything."

But many users are left waiting for programs to make use of all of that speed. Running normal applications on gigabit Internet is like riding a bicycle on a NASCAR track. For the moment, only a lucky few have any access. Everybody else is still on dirt paths.

Not much money can be made figuring out a 200-mile-per-hour bicycle, or to step back from the analogy, an application to maximize the massive broadband. Toby Rush, who runs a Kansas City biometrics startup called EyeVerify, says the apps will follow as access expands.

"When you can knock down the barriers — the roadblocks of near infinite bandwidth, real time, all the time, very cheap — it allows for a lot more digital things to happen, which is great for everybody," he says.

In the meantime, Rush says, Google has made gigabit speed standard in Kansas City. "Everyone else is following suit, just making this high-speed connectivity a commodity."

Mike Scott, the president of AT&T Kansas, stands by as workers splice fiber optic cable before sinking it into someone's back yard. Last month AT&T became the third provider broadly offering affordable, one gig Internet here. Time Warner and other providers have also boosted speeds.

"It's a fiber war so to speak," he says. "We are literally standing in the trenches of a fiber war. And I think the customer ultimately wins in all this competition."

But not everyone's a customer. In some Kansas City neighborhoods only one-in-five households have any type of Internet connection, let alone a fast one. Michael Liimatta, runs a nonprofit called Connecting for Good, that's trying to change that.

"Our center here, you might consider it to be the front lines closing the digital divide in Kansas City," he says.

Folks from this low-income neighborhood come in and use Google Fiber for free, but no one has it in the huge housing project across the street. Liimatta says he's sometimes disappointed that some of the expectations that the city had in terms of universal adoption, and loads and loads of free bandwidth, "never came to be."

Not yet anyway. Residents are still grappling with uses for super-fast Internet.

Copyright 2015 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

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