Entering the Wireless Frontier

Southwest will be second area to go live with new network

When Minneapolis begins rolling out its citywide wireless Internet network next year, Southwest residents and businesses will be among the first with access.

Construction of the network, which will be completed in six segments based on geographic areas of the city, will begin Downtown before starting in Southwest several weeks later. A preliminary timeline has the construction of the Downtown portion of the network scheduled to begin March 8 and be completed by June 5. U.S. Internet plans to begin construction of the Southwest portion of the network in early April, with completion scheduled for June 27.

After Southwest, the next segment of the city that will be outfitted with the wireless network will be the Midtown, followed by North Minneapolis, Northeast and finally the southeast corner of the city. The plan is to have construction under way in two sections of the city at any given time. Officials are aiming to have the entire citywide network completed by early November.

The wireless network is the result of a public-private partnership between Minneapolis and U.S. Internet. The project is moving forward after city officials signed a 10-year contract with U.S. Internet Nov. 2. The Minnetonka-based company will build and manage the wireless network, while the city will serve as the main network user. Up to 2,000 wireless devices will be installed throughout the city on light poles, traffic signals and buildings.

The logistics

One of the main reasons construction of the network will begin in the city's center is because it is the source of the largest amount of fiber optic cable in the city, and the fiber will serve as the backbone of the citywide network. Another reason is because Downtown poses the most challenges to creating a wireless network with its high density of buildings and tall skyscrapers, said James Farstad, a technical consultant who has been working with the city on its wireless network plan. It's important to tackle the areas of the city where designing the network will be most difficult first, he said.

&#8220You need to design a wireless network with the most challenging physical realities integrated into the planning process from the start,” Farstad said.

The other reason construction of the network will begin Downtown has to do with timing. Downtown has the least amount of foliage of any area of the city, which means the network can be assembled before the trees have leaves. Foliage can obstruct network connections, which means construction in areas like Southwest - which Farstad said has the most foliage of any area of the city - can't begin until the trees have their leaves and officials with U.S. Internet can clearly see where signals on the network would be blocked by foliage.

Construction will then move to Southwest, the area that poses the next greatest challenge to network designers because of the chain of lakes and large amount of foliage. Uptown also has the second largest amount of fiber optic cable in the city, something designers want to take advantage of to continue to build that fiber backbone.

Between now and when construction starts in March, Farstad said U.S. Internet and the city will continue the extensive planning and engineering needed to get the project off the ground. In the meantime, residents in one small area of the city will continue to test drive the wireless network. The one-square-mile pilot area U.S. Internet constructed to demonstrate its services for the city - an area that includes parts of the Cedar Riverside, Elliot Park, Ventura Village, Seward and Phillips neighborhoods - will remain up and running.

Peter Fleck lives in the Seward neighborhood and has been trying out the wireless test area. So far Fleck, who works as a webmaster for the University of Minnesota Cancer Center and was involved in a task force that examined a citywide wireless network early on, said he's been happy with the service he's received. The speeds have been fast and U.S. Internet has been responsive to his requests for technical support, he said. There have been glitches in the service, but Fleck said that's to be expected in a pilot area. He's waiting to see how the wireless service works on a citywide scale.

&#8220This is a big experiment in that nobody quite knows how it's going to work out,” Fleck said.

Cost breakdown

So far service for Fleck has been free, but that could soon change. U.S. Internet has offered discounted wireless Internet subscriptions for $15 per month to residents in those areas who want to be a part of the test network, according to Bill Beck, the city's deputy chief information officer. The company started by offering 250 of the subscriptions but had such a strong response in a matter of days that they expanded that number to 500 subscribers, Beck said. U.S. Internet is hoping to use what it learns from those customers to improve the citywide network, Farstad said.

When the entire network is up and running, residential Internet services will be available for $20 per month and business services will be provided at no more than $30 per month. Those prices will be capped for the duration of the 10-year contract. Beck said while other Internet service providers are already starting to offer wireless service at competitive rates, he's not worried. Several of the providers offer wireless bundled with other services or have other contract conditions, he said.

&#8220U.S. Internet Wireless has done some very, very extensive background and analysis work to make sure that the business model is viable,” Beck said. &#8220That was a major criteria in signing the contract.”

U.S. Internet will provide the city with wireless Internet that can be received in 95 percent of outdoor locations and 90 percent of indoor locations at speeds of one to three megabytes per second. Those speeds are consistent for both uploading and downloading, which Fleck emphasized is important.

Once the wireless network is complete in one segment of Minneapolis and city officials have tested and approved it, residents will receive notices from U.S. Internet that it is up and running in their neighborhood. In order to access the network, residents will need to sign up, pay the monthly fee and follow any set-up instructions. Some computers will also need a special wireless modem that can be purchased for $75 or rented for $5 per month. As part of the city's agreement with U.S. Internet, the company will have 24/7 customer and technical support available via telephone, e-mail and Web.

City officials have pushed for a citywide wireless network because they say it will arm city employees with a powerful communications tool - police officers, for example, could access images from building security cameras from laptops in their cars and file incident reports in the field - and help bridge the digital divide by providing low-income residents with access to technology.

While city departments may begin using the wireless network in a limited fashion once Downtown and other areas of the city are complete, Farstad said it will not be used as a public safety or citywide tool until the entire network is complete.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.