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Boulevards to broadband.

Boulevards to broadband.

From fields of grain to fiber optics, Kansas City has rewired itself into a tech city.

By: Meghan Puhr
Photos: Corbis, Getty, iStockPhoto, Shutterstock

Land and sea. Plains and piers. Boulevards and broadband. From a glance, the Midwest and the West Coast are polarized regions. But in the heart of the country, Kansas City, thanks to Google™, is rapidly becoming one of the hottest places to live and a tech mecca that will soon rival Silicon Valley.

The city itself, a mid-sized metropolitan gem straddling the border of Kansas and Missouri, is undoubtedly charming with a divergence of culture at every turn. The once semi-decaying downtown area has recently been revitalized with a bustling nightlife center, a robust foodie scene, a new sports arena and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. But the newness to the cityscape has not diminished its historical integrity but added to its vibrancy. Remnants of the past are still found in the skyline’s industrial signs and in tucked-away corner clubs that harbor echoes of the jazz greats who once played these joints. Kansas City has a rich legacy of creativity, innovation and expansive thinking, so it’s no surprise it is now making headlines as a new innovator in technology.

Over the course of the last several years, many tech-forward companies planted roots in Midwestern soil, and the playful term “Silicon Prairie” emerged to describe this movement. So, why the tech boom in the middle of America? A variety of reasons, but low cost of living, easy transportation and ample space certainly play a large role. And while Silicon Valley is certainly the crème de la crème for the techie scene, Kansas City has something they do not: Google Fiber™.

In 2010, Google™ set out on a national search to find an inaugural U.S. city to test its experimental fiber-optic network. More than 1,000 communities applied for consideration, some using unconventional means to attract the attention of the tech conglomerate. Topeka, Kansas, temporarily changed its official name to “Google™,” where some took to Twitter® or asked residents to create user-generated content. But, finally, Google™ announced it would start its network, Google Fiber™, in the heart of the country: Kansas City. 

“In selecting a city, our goal was to find a location where we could build efficiently, make an impact on the community and develop relationships with local government and community organization,” Google™ said in a statement. “We’ve found this in Kansas City. We’ll be working closely with local organizations including the Kauffman Foundation, KCNext and the University of Kansas Medical Center to help develop the gigabit applications of the future.” 

The hype and exclusivity surrounding Google Fiber™ broadband service was national news and made a splash across numerous tech publications, but what exactly is it? With U.S. Internet speeds struggling to keep pace in a modern society where we use data connections to mobilize our lives, Google™ set out to create something revolutionary. Operating through fiber-optic cables instead of the traditional copper, Google Fiber™ is able to achieve a connection of one gigabit per second (1,000 megabits per second) for lightning-fast download and upload speeds.   

Sounds cool, but how fast is it really? Upon a visit to Kansas City, I decided to head to the local Google Fiber™ retail space, which they call the Fiber Space. It’s clean and airy in aesthetic, yet inviting, almost as if a modern loft was adorned with cozy furniture and hometown-pride tchotchkes. There are several different living room-like spaces that allow you to relax and enjoy a hands-on demonstration of their basic Internet (free for seven years with an installation fee of $300 or 12 monthly payments of $25). You can also try the Google Fiber™ TV service and the incredible Gigabit Internet with rates that are similar to service providers that deliver 60 to 90 percent slower connections.

A friendly associate provided a demonstration, and it was easy to see that page-loading speeds were incredibly fast. While having 10 windows open, all playing high-resolution videos, the results of the speed test indicated that the download speed was about 919 Mbps and the upload speed was 782 Mbps. No lag time, no buffering, but clear high-definition content delivered nearly instantaneously. While the cost and effort to install fiber-optic cables is high, the advantages of such super-speed connectivity are arguably invaluable in the long term, considering community benefits in commerce, entertainment and medicine. Just as Google Fiber™ made plans to come to the Heartland, other interesting things were developing in the metro. In 2012, the Kansas City Startup Village (KCSV) emerged out of the upcoming tech buzz around the city. “Four years ago, Kansas City did not have the energy it has today. This was never really planned but really just a number of serendipitous situations that happened—one of them being Google Fiber™—not only coming to Kansas City but lighting up the neighborhood,” said Matthew Marcus, one of the co-leaders of the KC Startup Village. “We thought maybe we should try to be intentional and do something about it and start a cool spot for startup activity.”

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The collective started with about five companies in a variety of disciplines that included apps, hardware and medical. It now has 30 companies and 15 properties. Marcus made it clear that it functions more like a movement than a traditional organization. For example, all members are titled “co-leaders” to foster an inclusive community. “I like to call [the KC Startup Village] a living incubator,” he said. “Entrepreneurs have success with the connections of their networks. Some of the villagers live here, and essentially we are supporting and helping each other.” The KCSV recently became a special interest group of the Kansas City Startup Foundation (KCSF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit unifying and championing Kansas City’s entrepreneur community.

“It’s a vibrant place,” Marcus said when I asked him what drew entrepreneurs to Kansas City. “The cost of living differentiates us from other places, and the transportation is easy. A lot of people think of Kansas City as a cow town or flyover country, but then people get here and realize, ‘This is a pretty cool place to be.’” Google™ certainly thought so.

Not only are startup communities forming organically, entrepreneurs are being recruited to Kansas City with lucrative opportunities—and LaunchKC is a platform helping facilitate just that. The organization’s mission is to help contribute to the robust startup culture in Kansas City, thereby creating jobs and advancing the area as an innovation hub for the country. It has created a global grants competition where applicants vie for one of ten grants of $50,000, a full year of free office space in downtown Kansas City, and industry-specific mentors to help kick-start a business.

It’s safe to say that Kansas City will see more growth in the tech sector that will improve the lives of its citizens and those throughout the country. And if you ever get the opportunity to stop in this lively city and experience its ingenuity first hand, you won’t be disappointed. Of course, don’t forget to stop in for some barbeque.

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