hot city

Officials say citywide Wi-Fi will be faster and cheaper

Officials say they want a high-speed broadband network to blanket Minneapolis to arm city employees with a powerful communications tool.

The proposed wireless network also will provide residents and business with a low-cost Internet option, they say.

City leaders will select a private vendor this spring to build the network. Portions are expected to be up and running by the end of the year, but it could take 18 months for completion, said Bill Beck, the city's deputy chief information officer. Antennas positioned on telephone poles and buildings throughout the 60-square-mile city will broadcast the wireless signals - creating a citywide Wi-Fi cloud.

Earthlink, an Atlanta-based Internet Service Provider (ISP), and U.S. Internet, a Minnetonka-based ISP, are the two finalists competing for the contract. The companies will set up test sites in North Minneapolis and the Cedar-Riverside, Seward and Ventura Village neighborhoods.

The City Council was scheduled to vote on the city's business plan for the broadband network Feb. 24 after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said the wireless network, will help level the playing field for residents and small businesses.

&#8220The Internet is an essential tool for a student or small business, but we're still in a period of time where access to high-speed tools is easier for those with more resources. This is going to bring the cost down and increase the accessibility,” Rybak said. &#8220You will no longer have to look for a coffee shop that happens to be a hotspot; the whole city will be.”

Residents and businesses could subscribe to the network, but its primary purpose is to provide city employees with a more powerful and portable Internet connection.

City inspectors, for instance, could carry hand-held devices while in the field, police officers could file police reports from neighborhoods, and firefighters could access building information before entering burning structures.

&#8220We're building this out to meet the institutional needs of the city, border-to-border, which includes public safety - police and fire. This is unique,” Beck said. &#8220We believe the benefit to this is the city's demand for availability, reliability and quality of service are significantly higher than those of a pure residential network.”

The network is expected to be two to three times faster than typical high-speed connections and cost between $16 and $24 a month, he said.

City officials and the two vendors competing to build the network expect 20 percent to 30 percent of current broadband users - or 20,000 to 30,000 - to subscribe.

&#8220We're taking a conservative approach - as service grows and becomes common place that is going to grow rapidly,” Beck said.

Why outsource?

The city has opted to turn over construction and management of the network rather than run it to save on costs, Beck said. The winning vendor is projected to invest $20 million to $25 million to build the network.

Relying on a private vendor to build and maintain the network makes sense to City Council President Barb Johnson (4th Ward). &#8220We didn't want to get in the position of buying technology that could be outdated quickly,” she said.

Some have been critical of the city's decision to outsource the network without considering public ownership, however.

Becca Vargo Daggett, a research associate for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Southeast Minneapolis, said the city should have held public hearings to consider other ownership models.

While the upfront costs are steep, the wireless network could generate millions in revenues. In a report released earlier this month, the institute predicts the broadband network could generate a surplus of $19 million within 10 years. David Morris, the institute's vice president, said that money could be used to ensure that all of the city's residents have access to the high-speed network.

Despite some criticism, the city is sticking with its plan.

‘Virtual economy'

Before becoming mayor, Rybak ran an Internet-consulting business out of his home in Southwest and said building a wireless network is a critical step in preparing for the new economy.

&#8220You don't see us in office towers and you don't see us in storefronts, but we're out there doing work. That's the core of the new economy,” he said. &#8220What we're doing here is providing a tremendous, new low-cost tool to allow the home-based business, the creative class to move seamlessly throughout the city.”

By providing cheaper service and teaming with community groups to help lower-income residents gain access to technology, the city also hopes to bridge the digital divide. No citywide data exists, but according to a recent report by the Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP), about 35 percent of Minnesota households don't have a computer and about 44 percent of households don't have Internet access. That figure is considerably higher for African American and Hispanic households.

Nationally, 68 percent of African American households don't have computers, while 76.5 percent don't have Internet access. As for Hispanics, about 66.3 percent of households lack computers and 76 percent aren't connected to the Internet nationwide.

The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and CTEP are working with the city to draft community-benefits agreements. The winning vendor likely will be required to set aside a portion of its profits to improve computer literacy and to make computers more readily available to low-income residents.