Wireless network rollout delayed

Southwest residents likely won’t have access to the citywide wireless network until this fall.

U.S. Internet Wireless (USIW), the Minnetonka-based company the city chose to build the network, is running several weeks behind the original installation goals for Southwest. The company expects to finish installing wireless radios in Southwest in September and the service should be available to residents late that month or in early October, according to James Farstad, a program manager for the wireless project. After radios are installed, they will be “optimized” in order to make them communicate seamlessly with each other.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube, because when one radio in the system goes down, it needs to redirect to other ones,” Joe Caldwell, chief executive of USIW, told residents at an Aug. 15 community meeting at Lyndale Farmstead Park.

Farstad said the difficulty so far has been in finding enough suitably powered streetlights for attaching the estimated 1,800 to 2,000 wireless radios. Dense foliage is also posing a particular challenge in the tree-heavy Southwest neighborhoods, Farstad said.

“Trees don’t sometimes get in the way, they always get in the way,” Farstad said.  “More than 40 radios per square mile are required to deal with the foliage.”

Trees can interfere with the wireless signal sent by radios, and water — such as the chain of lakes — can reflect the signal like a mirror.

There are two types of radios: one that looks like a gray plastic plank about the size of shoeboxes, and the other that looks like “the pony-kegs you might remember from college,” Caldwell joked.  They beam electronic signals to each other to create the wireless network. Residents should expect to see more of them popping up in their neighborhood in coming weeks.

Southwest was originally scheduled to be the second area of the city — after Downtown — to go live with the network, which will be completed in six segments based on geographic areas of the city. Initial challenges led officials to push back the target date the wireless network and start constructing the network in the Midtown area of the city. The target date for the network to go live in Southwest has now been pushed back to late September or early October, according to officials at the community meeting.

Caldwell said that once the network is completed, residents will receive a flier in the mail from USIW explaining the service and how to sign up.

The community meeting held in Southwest was intended to provide an update for residents about the status of the network. Representatives from the city and USIW spoke to more than 60 people about how they hope the system will improve the delivery of city services and open up Internet access to those who, until now, have been unable to afford it or unfamiliar with how to use it. Residential accounts will be available for $19.99 per month once the network is completed.

“With the Wireless Minneapolis initiative, what we are trying to look for is new and different ways that we could empower the employees of the city of Minneapolis who work in the field to communicate more effectively in emergency and non-emergency situations,” Farstad told residents.

The network, according to the city, will give police squad cars the ability to watch security monitors in real time as they approach the scene of a crime, or give firefighters a way to look up building plans on their way to a fire.  The Downtown portion of the wireless network was able to provide maps to first-responders and recovery crews during the 35W bridge collapse instantly over the Internet instead of printing out and distributing maps and other key information.

“Last year I was going around to community groups saying, ‘What if they would have had this technology during [Hurricane] Katrina and people’s cell phones would have got a message saying, “Don’t go to I-5” or “Don’t go to the convention center?”’” asked Catherine Settanni, a consultant for the city’s Digital Inclusion initiative.  “It would have saved a lot of heartache and maybe even saved lives. What we have now is that kind of system.”

Another goal of the project, according to the presenters, was to open up Internet access to people who up until now, may have not had access.

“Digital inclusion is not just a cultural issue or a socioeconomic issue or an age issue, its all of these things,” Farstad said. “We have a lot of residents who don’t have access at an affordable rate. Try and apply for a job today without Internet access, or try and apply for Medicare Part D without the Internet.”

The multi-pronged strategy to close the digital divide isn’t yet finalized, but Settanni said that it will include a $500,000 fund started by U.S. Internet and administered by the Minneapolis Foundation to promote affordable Internet access and hardware, and training to those who need it, such as seniors or recent immigrants, who may not have experience with the Internet.  After the network is completed, 5 percent of USIW’s pretax revenue from the network will go to the fund, which could translate to as much as $11 million over 10 years, according to the city.

Another element in the plan is to provide 100 free accounts to nonproft groups and community centers to increase the availability of the internet for residents, especially in low income areas.

“At 4 p.m. in South Minneapolis at one of the [computer] labs, there is a line out the door for people who want to check their e-mail, and until those lines are gone, we still have a digital divide,” Settanni said.

Additionally, the Digital Inclusion Plan includes creating two kinds of free pages that anyone who can receive a wireless signal will be able to access regardless of whether they have a wireless account with USIW.  Settanni said they envision having “community portals” that will post news bulletins for the city, such as snow emergency notifications, and “civic gardens” where Minneapolis residents will be able to access city web sites, contact elected officials and find health and public safety information. Each region in the city, such as Southwest, will have their own civic garden tailored to their local needs, with information like social services, library resources and community groups, as well as about 90 other non-commercial web pages that the city is looking for input on from residents, according to Settanni.  

Residents can submit suggestions and feedback via an online survey at:

http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/wirelessminneapolis/WirelessMinneapolis_WhatsNew.asp.