Wireless Minneapolis Ready for Launch

By Eric Griffith

September 05, 2006

The city council pushed through the approval so provider US Internet can start a survey before the signal-interfering leaves fall. Will the suburbs follow?

As reported last week in our Hotspot Hits, the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota is the latest big municipality to pick a partner for installing citywide Wi-Fi. US Internet of Minnetonka is the vendor, and will use mesh equipment from BelAir Networks of Ottawa, Ontario.

Wireless Minneapolis is the name of the overall initative, which will eventually cover 168,000 households within 59 square miles with Wi-Fi for broadband. The cost for end users is  expected to be around $20 a month for 1 Megabit per second (Mbps) downloads (more for businesses). Deployment should take about 1,600 to 1,800 BelAir nodes.

The Pioneer Press said on Saturday Sept. 2 that the deployment will have to race against the notorious Minnesota winter -- not so much for the snow, but to do a full site survey to decide where to put the mesh nodes while the interference-causing leaves are still on the trees.

The city will be a major customer of the network when finished, expected to pay $1.25 million a year for 10 years for access by city employees. The city will also provide access to city utility poles for a rental fee of less than $10 per month per pole. Access to rooftops could be $500 to $1,000 a month, but not all the nodes will go on city property.

Local telco and Internet provider Qwest put up a fight against the launch of Wireless Minneapolis. They complained that the city was subsidizing what US Wireless will deploy and manage through a $2.2 million up-front payment. US Internet had to promise about $1 million in free network services in order to get the city council to support the network. This makes up for money the city would lose in interest if that $2.2 million were collecting 6% interest over 10 years.

One city council member told the Star Tribune, "This is the most significant act in our tenure on the city council." The vote was 12 to 1 for approval of a 10-year contract with US Internet.

The Star Tribune also says that the suburbs of Minneapolis not covered by this wireless deal are already looking for their own wireless broadband solutions. At least one (Richfield) and the University of Minnesota (which has no outdoor coverage) are considering using US Internet as well, essentially extending the network to their locations. This would allow seamless roaming for customers in those areas. A 17-city group affiliated with the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission is also considering it, but hasn't made a decision. The twin city of St. Paul is seeking proposals from Wi-Fi network providers.

Minneapolis will want all its neighbors to sign with US Internet — it gets a discount each time that happens. The profits from those other cities would also go in part toward the coffers of the city-sponsored digital divide fund.  

The other finalist for Minneapolis was EarthLink, the dial-up ISP rebuilding its business to become a major municipal Wi-Fi provider. It did install a one square mile pilot in a section of Minneapolis, as did US Internet. EarthLink has opened service in Anaheim, California, started installation in Philadelphia, and is under contract to provide service in New Orleans and San Francisco (the last with Google as a partner).



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