Test areas for wireless network up and running

While Minneapolis officials continue to work on a plan to outfit the entire city with wireless Internet, residents can test drive the new service in two sections of the city.

The two companies the city selected as the finalists to build the network - EarthLink and U.S. Internet - have each constructed a 1-square-mile pilot area in two separate sections of the city. U.S. Internet's pilot area includes parts of the neighborhoods of Elliot Park, Cedar-Riverside, Ventura Village, Seward and Phillips. EarthLink's pilot area includes parts of Near North, Sumner-Glenwood, Jordan and Hawthorne.

In those test areas, residents and businesses can log onto the wireless network and get a taste of how a similar citywide system may work. But city officials warn that while residents can give the network a try, service in the pilot areas may be in and out as the vendors and city officials perform tests and work out any glitches.

&#8220It will be fully functional, but it will be fully functional on an intermittent basis,” said James Farstad, a technical consultant who has been working with the city on its wireless network plan. &#8220During a lot of this testing, we bring the network down in order to make various changes and then bring it back up. Long term, we're looking for a very consistent service.”

The test areas went live July 5 and will be up and running for 60 days. During that period, the two vendors, as well as representatives from the city and the University of Minnesota, will repeatedly test the network. The company that wins the bid will build and manage the wireless network, while the city will serve as the main network user. The technology will also be available to Minneapolis businesses and residents anywhere within the city limits for about $20 a month.

The two test areas were chosen because city officials wanted areas that included at least some elements such as a community center, police station, fire station and city-owned buildings. Those structures are important to have in a test site, Farstad said, because one of the main purposes of the network is to arm city employees with a powerful communications tool - police officers, for example, could access images from building security cameras from laptops in their squad cars and file incident reports in the field.

One of the other main purposes of the wireless technology is to work on bridging the digital divide by helping lower-income residents gain access to technology.

&#8220We're going to be focusing on digital inclusion and computer literacy,” said Bill Beck, the city's deputy chief information officer.

To ensure Minneapolis receives the community benefits it would like from the network, city officials will also take into consideration the opinions of a community advisory group that includes more than 30 members.

The advisory group would like to see some subsidized wireless accounts for non-profits and community technology centers as well as for low income residents, said task force organizer Catherine Settanni.

City officials are currently in the process of receiving the best and final offers from each of the vendors and taking into consideration the recommendations from the community task force. The next step officials will take is to see how each vendor meets the city's needs in the test areas before selecting a vendor and negotiating a contract. The City Council then needs to approve the final vendor contract. Construction will likely begin in fall of this year, and the network is scheduled for completion by the fall of 2007.

For more information and to see the exact locations of the test areas, go to www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/wirelessminneapolis/.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.