Wi-Fi plan OKed

City Council votes to begin wireless network negotiations

The City Council has cleared the way for city officials to move forward with negotiations with two private vendors vying to build a citywide wireless network.

The Feb. 24 vote came despite some questions raised by councilmembers and residents about whether a public-private ownership model was the best route for the city.

The Council vote was 11-1 on the proposed business case for the Wi-Fi network, with Councilmember Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) voting no. The Council then unanimously voted to allow city officials to set up pilot projects of the network.

The Council also voted 11-1 to allow the city to begin contract negotiations with the vendors, again with Gordon voting no.

The wireless proposal encountered static at a City Council public hearing Feb. 21 when opponents of the initiative called on city officials to consider pursuing a publicly owned Wi-Fi network in favor of the private-public partnership.

Under the current plan, city leaders plan to select a private vendor to build the high-speed broadband network that would blanket the city with a Wi-Fi cloud - providing households and businesses with wireless Internet access anywhere in Minneapolis.

The city would serve as an anchor tenant on the network and own the fiber-optic infrastructure, officials said at the hearing.

The city is negotiating with two Internet Service Providers, Atlanta-based Earthlink and Minnetonka-based U.S. Internet, for the wireless contract. A vendor is expected to be selected this spring and go before the Council for approval.

While many lauded the city's proposal for a wireless network at the public hearing before the Council's Ways and Means/Budget Committee, some criticized the city for not considering alternative ownership models that could potentially generate revenue for the city.

Becca Vargo Daggett, a research associate for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance who has been an outspoken critic of the city's wireless network proposal, called on councilmembers to withhold approval of the proposed broadband initiative until other options are considered.

She called the city's business plan for the Wi-Fi network &#8220misleading” and criticized officials for leaving the public out of the decision-making process.

In research for the institute, Vargo Daggett has predicted that a publicly owned broadband network could generate a surplus of $19 million for the city in 10 years.

Proponents of the city's proposed broadband initiative, however, have argued that turning over development of the network to a private company carries less financial and legal risks.

The buildout of the network is expected to cost $20 million to $25 million.

After listening to the public testimony Feb. 21, councilmembers raised questions about the city's process and urged staff members to provide them with additional research into municipally owned networks.

The Council committee then delayed a vote on the city's broadband initiative.

Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) called on city staff members involved in the broadband request for proposals (RFP) to provide information on the analysis that prompted officials to opt for the public-private partnership model. She also called for a community-engagement plan detailing past and future efforts to involve citizens in shaping the broadband network agreement.

Councilmember Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) asked for a more rigorous analysis of alternative ownership models, including a plan in which the city would own the network and rent it out to multiple Internet service providers.

&#8220We can't make an informed choice without comparing costs, risks and benefits,” he said.