Muni Mesh Proving its "Mettle" in Minneapolis
February 20, 2008
At a time when cities and vendors are struggling to create an affordable, high-performance metro Wi-Fi system, the joint public-private effort in Minneapolis is proving to be a successful model.
Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak says that his city benefited from the municipal Wi-Fi efforts that came before it as it planned its own wireless endeavor. And, he says, from the beginning, communities recommended either owning a wireless network entirely or allowing a private sector player to retain total control.
"We chose instead a course that almost no one was on, which was to have a public-private partnership, with a Minnesota-based company no one else had heard of," he says.
Today, Wireless Minneapolis is in the fifth phase of its six-phase rollout. The network will eventually encompass nearly 60 square miles. USI Wireless built and installed the network using BelAir Networks mesh technology, with over 2000 access points currently in place.
An independent consulting firm, Novarum, conducted tests on the network in December and has recently released its results. The verdict?
"The part that we tested worked very well," says Phil Belanger, Novarum's co-founder and chief marketing officer. He points out that the testing is preliminary and included only a small area of the network. Still, the results are impressive and make Minneapolis the highest performing metro Wi-Fi deployment Novarum has tested.
"Based on the early data, the results there were very strong," he says. Belanger agrees that Minneapolis benefited from the experience of other cities and says the Minnesota community's clear, focused goals helped it develop productive partnerships.
"They did have a number of applications that they were going to use on the network," he says, including public safety, public Internet access and city services. They knew their needs demanded a high performance system and the city agreed to commit itself to the service provider as an anchor tenant. "That makes it much more attractive and feasible for that service provider to build a service based on that."
Rybak says his experience as an Internet strategist, before he was elected mayor, gave him enough understanding of the industry to know that the city would do well to let the experts do what they're best at.
"One of the places that I believe many cities slip is when they try to compete with the private sector in a rapidly evolving technology."
And, he says the $2 million the city contributed at the start was already in the budget.
"We would have made that investment anyway, the difference is that we leveraged that investment to provide a tremendous amenity to citizens, he says.
The investment is also expected to be recouped, explains James Farstad, a consultant to the city who is program manager for Wireless Minneapolis. The city's agreement to be an anchor tenant on the network means for ten years it will pay $1.25 million per year for the broadband service. But the up-front money will be credited back against that expense. In addition, over time USI Wireless will contribute $500,000 to a digital inclusion fund.
To protect and to serve
Public safety is a major function of the system and according to Stephen Rayment, the chief technology officer of BelAir, Minneapolis now has the biggest 4.9 GHz footprint in the country (the federally-restricted band dedicated to public safety applications).
He says the Minneapolis network simultaneously uses the 802.11b/g and 4.9GHz operational bands, meaning public safety users "don't have to compete for bandwidth and throughput with the kid downloading something from iTunes or some shareware or whatever."
Rayment says BelAir uses a switched mesh technology that can employ multiple radios per link.
"Each of the links that links the mesh nodes together is a separate and dedicated radio on a separate and dedicated frequency on a separate antenna," he says. That means throughput remains consistent whether a user is one, five, or ten hops out.
"The point of the switched mesh is that it allows you to build out capacity all the way to the edge of the network." He says the technology leads to lower latency "so you can do real-time interactive video," for example.
Last August, the deadly collapse of a bridge on I-35W put the new network to the test.
"It really did prove its mettle," Rayment says. "All the stuff that we claimed it would do, it really did."
The area where the collapse occurred happened to be in the vicinity of the first completed stage of installation. With wireless, public safety officials were able to download large GIS maps quickly. Video over Wi-Fi contributed to officials' understanding of the situation with constantly current information.
"They actually had video cameras at various locations around the incident scene that they were able to use to upload video in real time from the emergency site," Rayment says, allowing the officials in the emergency operations center to watch as conditions changed and to offer informed recommendations for what to do next. Farstad says in the past those officials would have relied on radios.
"To see images from the bridge site, they vowed they would never go back to managing that type of emergency over the radio," he says. Rayment says the capacity to suddenly transmit enormous data files and live video always existed on the network and "was just sitting there waiting to be used." In addition, the public bandwidth was opened up to the general public for free to improve communication at a time when cell towers quickly became overwhelmed.
Rayment says, with about 18 different agencies, including the Secret Service, involved with the bridge collapse incident and relying on the same network "it's a great case study for interoperability."
The total population of Minneapolis (according to 2000 census data), is roughly 380,000. Currently, Farstad says, Wireless Minneapolis has about six to seven thousand subscribers and he predicts the number will swell to 10,000 when installation is complete. Mary Earl is no longer one of them, however.
Earl lives in a neighborhood that was part of the pilot project, so even though she doesn't have a laptop and hadn't had broadband service before, she eagerly joined the pilot.
"I just thought it sounded like an exciting idea and kind of forward-thinking and kind of cool," she says. But things didn't go well.
"I could get on-line about half the time," she says. In the many hours she spent on the phone with USI Wireless' tech support, she says she learned that the material her house was built of and even the leafing out of the trees in spring all could affect her connectivity. She tried every suggestion she got. "I really wanted it to work," she says. Though she ultimately gave up and got DSL instead, she remains a supporter of the network conceptually.
"I figure it's going to work someday," says Earl.
Despite the unsatisfactory experience Earl describes, overall, Minneapolis has received acclaim from both local commentators, such as the editorial board of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and independent third-parties, such as Novarum.
"We're not pounding our fist on the table and saying we're a success," says Farstad. "We're very pleased with where we are [but] we're a couple years away from declaring success."
That, he says, will come only when the network is fully installed and being used widely. Mayor Rybak adds that city departments are only beginning to explore the ways in which a wireless network may improve employee productivity and service to residents.
Says Rybak, "We know that as time goes forward and people get more confidence in the system it will be used more."
Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.