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Area is finding ways to best use the flying Google Fiber

Updated: 2013-03-22T03:18:20Z

By SCOTT CANON

The Kansas City Star

Google Inc. landed in Kansas City promising fat-pipe Internet connections and a resulting digital revolution.

In the two years since Google Fiber said it would launch here, however, expectations recalibrated. Seemingly no one could come up with specific ideas that would only be possible on the next-generation infobahn.

Oh, it would surely bring competition to the cable and phone companies selling TV and Internet service. And download speeds would certainly find another gear.

But to what end? An early contest to judge business plans based on gigabit speeds — downloads 100 times better and uploads 1,000 times quicker than what we’ve known — uncovered only ventures already achievable over conventional broadband.

Now, though, some still-forming ideas have begun to bubble up.

These dream-stage applications rely on moving massive amounts of information in an instant — Big Data, as the geeks call it, swapped to and fro in an eyeblink. If they work, the ideas could make you healthier, wealthier and wiser. If they don’t, at least you can still gorge on streaming video.

An event that kicks off Friday — Hacking the Gigabit City — could give a peek at the possibilities that come when superspeed Internet connections previously affordable only to larger institutions bust into the home.

“We want to be the beta test capital of the world,” said Cameron Cushman, the manager of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation. “(But) inventing the future is hard. Inventing the future takes work.”

Kauffman has teamed with KC Digital Drive, Mozilla Foundation and US Ignite to put on this weekend’s event. It’s an effort to explore not just new ways to put the Internet to work, but ways that the Internet can work only when the connections are set at warp speed.

Consider a notion batted around by the Kansas City Public Library: virtual software checkouts.

Say you want to tackle a project on Photoshop, the software that can insert Sasquatch into a family portrait.

In today’s world, you would first need to make sure your computer had plenty of processing power. Then you would be looking at spending upward of another $300 to buy the software.

But if the library keeps the software on its computer and lets you tap in, Photoshop is yours. On an ordinary Internet connection, working with such bulky programs and large photo files remotely becomes so clunky as to be impractical. Over gigabit connections like those coming from Google Fiber, it’s as though the library’s computers were suddenly yours.

“It’s just putting the software in front of you,” said David LaCrone, the library’s digital branch manager. “You’d see your 8-year-old computer do amazing things.”

Kinks remain in the concept, things LaCrone hopes the “Hacking” event can begin to iron out.

Start with copyright. Just like a book, the library can buy a copy of Photoshop and check it out to you. As with a book, however, the library can’t loan more software copies than it has purchased.

Developers at Hacking the Gigabit City, LaCrone said, might be able to help with the tricky scheduling issues of such virtual loans. Patrons check out books for a few weeks at a stretch. They might want to check out software for just a few hours. So how does the library referee the demand for the most popular software? Who gets it Saturday afternoon? Or at 2 a.m. Tuesday?

“We’ve got some things to figure out,” LaCrone said. “But we’ll make it work.”

Other ideas also inch closer to fully exploiting gigabit connections. Among them:

Combining high-definition, streaming, two-way or multi-location videoconferencing for educational courses. Imagine high-end calculus or rudimentary Latin classes taught online, but with interaction so seamless it seems that both instructor and instructed are in the same classroom.

• Using three-dimensional visualization to better understand, and weigh in on, municipal planning projects. It would be a better way to understand the redesign of an intersection or the goals of a zoning plan.

• Putting video portals in schools to connect students, parents, school nurses and other health care professionals to extend the reach of medical care. Crisp, real-time video images could make a difference in the level of diagnoses that could be made remotely.

All the concepts remain far from practice. For starters, Google Fiber’s gigabit connections exist only in a scattering of homes in Kansas City, Kan., so far. Next up is Kansas City. The company added Olathe this week, but that’s probably years down the road.

And hurdles await. More than a few ideas look to some form of teleconferencing. But high-definition video requires HD cameras. And such cameras still tend to add annoying lag time to teleconferences no matter how robust the Internet connection. Besides, how many people will bother to outfit their homes with such gear?

Or how confident do library patrons need to feel about their computer skills before they start tinkering with new software over a remote connection?

Awesome, but…

Technology writer Farhad Manjoo came to Kansas City earlier this year to look at Google Fiber. He filed a glowing account. But he also described what he called the “fundamental problem” with the service’s ultrafast speed.

“It’s totally awesome, and totally unnecessary,” he wrote for the online magazine Slate. “As hard as people tried, few could even think up ways to do something truly amazing with the world’s fastest Internet.”

Still, some in Kansas City are starting to see a world where such Internet speed really matters.

“Compared to where we were two years ago, we’ve made immense strides,” said Mike Burke, who co-chaired an ad hoc panel that looked at ways to capitalize on Google Fiber. “I’m not worried about innovative ideas arising in Kansas City.”

Advocates of broadband investment say it’s too early to expect miracles, but not too early to upgrade technological infrastructure.

“It will spur innovation,” said Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council of the Americas. “It’s like improving your highways. It’s something you need to do.”

For its part, Google has been loath to predict what distinct uses might emerge from its service even as it has insisted that something game-changing will come from a far faster home Internet.

“We’ve heard from graphic designers, video producers, transcriptionists, people who work from home, students and lots of other folks who are obviously benefiting from faster speeds right now,” the company said in a statement. “We’ve been really excited about some of the ideas we’ve seen coming out of KC, and we can’t wait to see those ideas develop into cool new products.”

As much as specific applications, some see a need to build a community of developers collaborating on projects and putting coders’ muscle into gigabit functionality.

“You get people together and, given this need or that idea, figure out if this is something we can do,” said Aaron Deacon, the managing director of KC Digital Drive.

His organization was formed to discover and deploy uses for gigabit connections.

“The idea is, let’s figure out what we can do on this network that we couldn’t do on the previous networks.”

Some analysts, like Google, believe ideas that take true advantage of gigabit speeds will emerge more quickly as gigabits start pumping into living rooms.

“So far, developers have been working in an environment of scarcity,” said Bill Wallace, the executive director of US Ignite.

His organization, funded by foundations and some cable companies, is focused on next-generation Internet applications.

“Only in the last couple of years have developers begun to imagine an environment of abundance.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottCanon.

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