Columnist: High-Speed Internet: Mega-states for Cities and Regions

March 5, 2012
by Neal Peirce

What does it really mean for a city when it wins the high-speed Internet sweepstakes?

Last year Kansas City, Kan., got the electrifying news: It had beaten out 1,100 others to be selected as the site for Internet giant Google's first ultra-high speed fiber network.

Later Google expanded the award to include even bigger Kansas City, Mo., directly across the Missouri River. So the entire region has been bubbling with excitement. But also scratching its head, wondering what comes next and what the real-time gain is when there's assurance of gigabyte-per-second Internet speeds, 100 times faster than America's national average.

Nothing's been constructed or connected yet, but hopes are still high. Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sylvester "Sly" James, an articulate lawyer elected in 2011, starred at a recent international Cities Summit in Vancouver as he outlined the rich opportunities that the Google selection has opened up. "It has put us on the map," James contends, by dramatically advancing the region's image as a hot spot for more creative industries, knowledge workers and high-speed fiber-enabled new business models.

And there is local ferment. The Kauffman Foundation sees dramatic opportunities for its central focus - entrepreneurship. The University of Kansas Medical Center has asked its affiliates for ideas including virtual in-home or in-clinic medical services.

Concurrently, a Social Media Club has hosted public forums to drum up ideas for high-speed fiber-enabled products and services. A technology innovation firm - Think Big Partners LLC - issued a gigabyte challenge culminating in a final session at which 17 individuals or teams (out of 120 competitors) presented ideas to win $450,000 in awards. A business-led "Brainzooming" group created a hefty report with 100-plus ideas for exploiting the new opportunities.

What will truly emerge from all this? It's not yet clear because Google is being cautious on specifics. The company is clearly committed to providing fiber access to homes in the two Kansas Citys but hasn't said anything yet about suburbs. There's a promise to provide the service free to some hospitals, schools and libraries. But what will the ongoing cost be to businesses or homeowners? Lots of questions remain.

The basic issues are compelling. Networking giant Cisco's global surveys show the United States ranks just 15th in Internet connectivity among countries worldwide. (South Korea is first.) Without more development zeal, says Cisco's Gordon Feller, we're in danger of being a second-class competitor.

And Kansas City is approaching the kind of moxie and vision needed, notes David Sandel of Sandel & Associates, a St. Louis-based firm of "digital city master planners," that helps cities and metros develop Internet-linked innovation economies. Look forward 20 or more years, Sandel suggests. Many cities will have developed the crucial new broadband infrastructure, positioning themselves to attract and retain businesses and succeed.

Sandel recalls the era when some cities - Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver and others - leapt ahead of their competitors by making early and massive airport investments. Others, by contrast, fell behind. In the 1940s, Birmingham and Atlanta were vying for the crown of the new South. Atlanta then bet on a series of major airport expansions. Birmingham stagnated, never again a competitor.

Today's key, says Sandel: how early metro regions line up their public, private and technology sectors to work quickly, but with a premium on collaboration, to plan and deploy high-speed Internet connectivity, the currency of our age, to assure they're innovation leaders, not followers.

But the chemistry can work in reverse, too: the potential gain when high-speed fiber possibilities help to overcome historical distrust, catalyzing regional will and coordination. The two Kansas Citys and their neighbors have often had rocky relationships, including use of tax inducements to lure businesses across the city and state lines. 

But Mayor James sees a new day dawning: "We've used the Google move as a catalyst to start a whole new conversation on a regional basis. It's allowed for open doors and promoted a level of collaboration between (Kansas City, Kan.) Mayor (Joseph) Reardon and myself that's extremely fortuitous. Joe and I are doing joint appearances, including a joint video to promote the region. We've had a joint university conversation about civility and political discourse and how to work together." Plus, says James, there's "a halo effect" - smaller surrounding communities wanting to get in on the conversation and the apparent new economic opportunities.

Those are reasons, James say, that a mayor's Bistate Innovation Team, with six appointees by both himself and Reardon, has been formed through the region's Mid-America Regional Council. "We're using this as a platform to build not just conversational regionalism but actual regionalism."

Will all this, encouraging and working alongside the new private-sector initiatives, really work? Will it actually keep old antagonisms at bay - and then produce the promised economic dividends? No telling. But the potential for breakthroughs is there for forward-looking regions to grasp.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.