Kansas City, Google and the Leveraging of Public Value

To Mayor Sly James, the first-in-the-nation Google Fiber project is about a lot more than blazing-fast broadband.
by | December 19, 2012
 

Increasingly we see that valuations of public initiatives to do things in better, faster and cheaper ways must calculate not only benefits or costs inside a narrow city budget but also look at how the initiatives produce benefits or costs in other areas of a city. These valuations look to the total public value created for a community.

I was reminded of this recently when I was in Kansas City, Mo., and spoke with Mayor Sylvester "Sly" James. We discussed his city's widely touted first-in-the-nation initiative with Google, called Google Fiber, which promises Internet connectivity at gigabit speeds -- up to 100 times faster than that available in most of the United States.

Google Fiber went live in mid-November with its ultra-high-speed broadband network in the two-state metropolis of Kansas City. Along with the high-speed Internet service, Google Fiber offers a television package with two terabytes of program storage, an Android tablet to be used as the remote control and one terabyte of Google Drive storage space for a monthly fee of $120.

I was interested in how Mayor James viewed the value the network would produce for the city -- why it continues to receive so much mayoral attention and how he conceptualized its worth. Clearly, whenever public and private purposes are joined, success depends on the public official driving the right bargain. James listed four areas in which he thought the initiative would benefit Kansas City, demonstrating how to both directly and indirectly leverage assets.

Kansas City Mayor Sylvester James  
Kansas City Mayor Sylvester "Sly" James
The first area involved the large impact Google Fiber is having on the branding of the city. People are talking about Kansas City in a way they never did before, James said. "Cities are constantly looking for something to make them unique. This makes us unique."

The mayor's second point focused on a less-obvious benefit. More than 1,100 communities competed for the first Google Fiber project, and James felt that approaching the company as a region had helped to eclipse some of the parochial and nonproductive squabbling among Kansas City and its surrounding areas. Working with Mayor Joe Reardon of Kansas City, Kan., to bring Google Fiber to the wider metropolitan area helped build bridges between their cities in other areas as well, especially in addressing the region's economic development in a more cooperative and constructive way.

The third area the mayor mentioned was Google Fiber's effect on neighborhoods. He wanted to make sure that the network did not just benefit wealthier parts of the community. Because of the way Google fashioned the buy-in, with residents petitioning for services by pre-registering and paying $10, there was fear that less-affluent neighborhoods would be left behind. Rather than addressing this by penalizing those who wanted to participate, the city helped to start up Neighbor.ly, which was the online vehicle a group called "Paint the Town Green" used to raise money to cover the signup costs in less affluent neighborhoods. Through that process, the city ended up pre-registering and greenlighting around 90 percent of its neighborhoods.

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Finally and most obviously, the mayor predicts that the Google Fiber network will facilitate the city's primary goal for the project: facilitating job growth. Just the announcement of the project sparked attention and "buzz" in the creative classes. With the build-out in progress, some small businesses already have shown growth, and new businesses have popped up, such as a "hacker house" where the owner invites people who need fiber-optic access to work. On a larger scale, Google Fiber has been key to the launch of the Kansas City Startup Village, a grassroots entrepreneurial initiative that states on its website that it is "seeking like-minded, local/regional/national startups who are interested in locating (or relocating)" to the first Google "fiberhoods."

Cities can have reputations for getting things done with business or for slowing them down. Mayor James established an efficient process for engaging Google, and wants to extend that process to other businesses that are looking for the opportunity to grow. He knows that the competitive edge brought by Google Fiber will not last forever and hopes for rapid success in marketing the fast Internet speeds.

Kansas City already has come a long way with the Google Fiber effort. Whether it will leverage the job growth James hopes for will be watched closely. But the broader public value of symbolism, "buzz," regional cooperation and neighborhood connectivity already have produced benefits for Kansas City.

Mayor James was recognized as one of America's top city-hall innovators recently by Newsweek in a selection process aided by Stephen Goldsmith and Jayson White of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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