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Google Fiber experiment draws would-be Web entrepreneurs

Mike Demarais, 20, arrived from Boston to the Kansas City area's first “fiberhood” with his MacBook, some clothes and an idea.

Call him a homesteader on the Silicon Prairie.

His idea is, well, hard to explain — as often is the case for Internet entrepreneurs drawn to the ultra-speed promise of Google Fiber, soon to be providing next-generation Web and TV service to the Hanover Heights neighborhood.

Suffice it to say Demarais is convinced his little Web-based startup could revolutionize manufacturing, customize products such as clothing to each consumer's likes, and make assembly lines as we know them obsolete.

At least for the time being, while he massages this idea into something possible, Demarais has an affordable place to hang — in a house that should be pulsing, any day now, with a second-to-none gigabit connection.

“This is all I need,” said Demarais, tapping the lid of his laptop on the coffee table.

He lives here for free — thanks to a local Web designer doing his part to make the region a magnet for gig-hungry geeks of the entrepreneurial variety.

Across this region, civic and government leaders, development groups, colleges, foundations and task forces are rolling out grand plans to capitalize on the first-in-the-nation Google Fiber hype. But the actual doing has begun a half-dozen houses down the street from the modest digs Demarais moved into this month.

Online startups with names that pop — FormZapper, EyeVerify, SquareOffs, Leap2 and LocalRuckus — are clustering in the Hanover Heights area of Kansas City, Kansas, creating what's called the KC Startup Village.

As white Google Fiber vans crawl down residential roads to hook up houses, an aging district once dominated by antique shops, salons, bars and boutiques is becoming a humble nativity for Kansas City's fledgling entrepreneurial class.

Or so the community hopes.

Those leading the effort envision a metro where doctors can peer into your son's aching ear as he sits miles away at a home computer.

A place where video gamers move in just to smite their enemies at unmatched speeds. Where high-tech products are developed and launched from the banks of Brush Creek or the bluffs above the Kaw River — Silicon Prairie, they're calling it.

“The challenge is in tying all of these possibilities into a coherent story line — one that says Kansas City is serious about next-generation technology,” said Aaron Deacon, selected by the Mid-America Regional Council to direct a push called KC Digital Drive.

Deacon pitched the Kansas City story line last week to Istanbul, Turkey, where he was invited to give a talk. About 30 members of the Turkish media quizzed him about Google Fiber.

“It can get kind of comical,” he told the Kansas City Star.

“There are all these people, and all these cities, who believe they have the next big idea. But the only value comes when it gets created, when it happens.”

In the fiberhood, a Google-defined district of potential customers for the search giant's Internet connections, Ben Barreth is trying his best to make it happen. Barreth, a local Web developer, drew cash from his IRA and took out a mortgage on a US$48,000 house for budding entrepreneurs, including Demarais, to live in rent-free for three months.

A wild impulse, Barreth admits. Two months ago, when he raised the idea to his wife, “both of us just busted out laughing.”

A home for hackers, Barreth dubbed it — heck, he'd even cover utility costs.

(To the most gifted of geeks, the term “hacker” means nothing deviant. It applies to anyone willing to spend all night immersed in computer coding — for creative purposes, not illegal ones.)

“We want to be an innovative city? Let's make it easier for these young people to move here and start a business,” said Barreth. He attributed part of his thinking to being a devout Christian, striving to do good, though he acknowledged:

“There's a cool factor. I'm really pumped about fiber.”

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In this Nov. 13 photo, Adam Arredondo, CEO, left, and Matthew Marcus, CTO, of Local Ruckus, a Hanover Heights “fiberhood” in Kansas City, Kansas, high five near the completion of the Google Fiber installation process.(MCT)

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