Wondering about wireless?

City officials provide answers to common questions about the new Wi-Fi network set to go live later this year

By the end of this year, Minneapolis residents will have the ability to access the Internet while picnicking in one of the city's parks or waiting for the bus to arrive.

After nearly a year of proposals and planning, the construction of a citywide wireless Internet network is set to begin this spring.

The network will be completed in six geographic segments of the city, with work slated to begin in Southwest in early April. Officials expect work in Southwest to be completed in June, and the entire network is scheduled for completion by November. As each segment of the network is completed, residents within that area will have the option to sign up and begin receiving service for $20 a month.

But while the timeline is clear, for many residents the details of how the wireless network will function and the city's role as its anchor tenant can be confusing. The Southwest Journal asked city officials to fill in the details.

Why did the city get involved in the construction of a wireless Internet network when it is already dealing with a tight budget and limited resources?

The city already pays $1.25 million per year for a variety of connections that will be replaced by the wireless network, according to information provided by Business Information Services Director Lynn Willenbring. DSL/cable connections currently cost approximately $55,000 per year, T-1 connections $365,000, vehicle connections $165,000, cell phones $450,000 and laptop aircards $215,000.

The city signed a 10-year contract with U.S. Internet Wireless (USIW), agreeing to pay the company $2.2 million up front and a minimum of $1.25 million each year. Over the course of the decade-long contract, the city will recoup the up-front cash payment.

Minneapolis offi cials maintain that comparing the amount of money the city currently spends on all connectivity services that will be replaced by the wireless network - not just the Internet service - demonstrates that the wireless network will be cost-effective while at the same time improving the services the city provides to residents.

The city examined several business models for a wireless network, including one in which it would build and operate the network itself. But offi cials opted for a public-private model in which USIW, the Minnetonka-based company the city chose, will pay to build and operate the network and the city will serve as its anchor tenant.

While the city pursued a wireless network to improve the services it provides, mayoral spokesperson Jeremy Hanson said it also made it a priority to have the network available to residents at a reasonable cost. The contract with USIW guarantees that the cost of access to the wireless network for residents will remain $20 per month for the next 10 years.

As this project gets underway, will taxpayer money go to pay for any of the construction or operation of the wireless network?

USIW will pay for the more than $20 million cost of building the network and is responsible for the start-up and operation of the system.

However, the city does own the fiber optic infrastructure that will serve as the backbone in creating the wireless network. So it does have a role in the expansion of existing fiber assets connecting city facilities and providing bandwidth to the wireless network. Fiber optic improvements could exceed $3.5 million, according to the business case prepared by the city.

James Farstad, a technical consultant who has been working with the city on its wireless network plan, said right now the city is spending about $300,000 to expand some of the fiber optics it owns. The city does not have the money right now to pay for millions of dollars in fiber optic improvements, and Farstad said that figure was based on an ideal outlook on where the city wants to go in the future.

&#8220We have to pace ourselves and work within budgets,” Farstad said.

It is important for the city to retain ownership of the fiber optic infrastructure, he said, because it could be a valuable backbone for future forms of technology as well.

Taxpayer money will, of course, also be used for the $1.25 million the city will pay USIW annually as its largest client. Hanson compares the unique business model the city is using to an airport.

&#8220The government builds the airport, but the airplanes are privately funded. In this case, the city owns the fiber optic backbone, and then you have a private company that is building the infrastructure that provides the service. And the city is their largest customer, which is dramatically driving down the cost for everybody else who wants to ride along,” Hanson said.

How much city staff time has gone into working on plans for the wireless network?

There was no dedicated city staff assigned to the project, but staff members did invest several hundred hours defining requirements, developing the request for proposals and selecting the provider. Staff members who worked on the wireless network project added these assignments to their existing workloads.

What will residents have to do to gain access to the wireless network once it is up and running in their area of the city?

Once residents receive a letter from USIW informing them that the wireless network is complete in their neighborhood, they have the option of signing up for service. Residents may sign up for service by using the Web portal that will be available at www.usinternet.com or by calling the service number provided on the letter.

To access the wireless network indoors, residents will need a piece of customer premises equipment (CPE). That piece of equipment is what gives computers the strength to transmit signals back outside to the wireless network infrastructure. USIW has chosen to support and offer to customers a Ruckus wireless device. Customers can purchase that device for $75 or rent it for $5 a month.

Customers can also purchase their CPE from another vendor, Farstad said. The network will be standards based and will allow customers to attach to the network using appropriate standards-based devices.

&#8220Nobody's preventing you from buying it wherever you want,” Farstad said, adding, however, that USIW will offer technical support service only for the Ruckus device.

To access the wireless network outdoors, customers will not need a CPE device. If a wireless subscriber takes his or her laptop to the park, for example, he or she simply needs to enter a user name and password to access the Internet.

Will residents have to pay for wireless service on each computer in their home?

No. Subscriptions are based on the user name, which allows for the wireless subscription to be used on any computer or device.

&#8220If you're out and about and you're using somebody else's laptop, you just enter your user name and password, and off you go,” Farstad said.

Home users will be allowed two simultaneous connections with the same user name. This allows users to keep their home computer connected and still have service on a laptop or other mobile device while traveling within the coverage area.

USIW will also allow up to three machines to attach to a CPE. Users may connect their CPE to their own internal wireless router or switch and connect multiple computers within the home on a single subscription.

If residents aren't interested in accessing citywide wireless service, can they stick with the Internet service they have now?

Yes. &#8220One of the important things for us to help people understand is that this is another kind of service that will be introduced into the marketplace. They will still have options,” Hanson said. &#8220We think this new service provided by U.S. Internet is going to be very competitive and a highly popular service. But it really is just another service.”

USIW does plan to offer wholesale pricing to other Internet service providers. This means other Internet service providers in the city might purchase the right to use the wireless network and then sell their own wireless services or packages to residents. If this happens, Farstad said their current provider might approach residents with new or different service options.

Can non-Minneapolis residents subscribe to the wireless network?

Yes. But service will only work within the city limits and at hot spot locations that have &#8220roaming” agreements with USIW.