A wireless conundrum

At the 11th hour, the Park Board has been asked to extend the city’s wireless network into its land. Should it?

Before November 2006, the city of Minneapolis hosted almost two dozen community meetings, held lengthy conversations in City Hall and hammered out a thick, extensive contract, all so that its ambitious citywide wireless network could be a success.

They just forgot one thing: They never approached the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s commissioners.

Now, the city says, the Park Board is all that stands in between a completely covered Minneapolis and a network with gaping holes.

The stakes are high for the city.

The completed network would make Minneapolis the only large city in the world to be entirely blanketed by wireless Internet.

It could set it up for a state-of-the-art emergency response system.

And, perhaps most importantly during a tough economy, it would add value to the city’s contract with USI Wireless — Minneapolis pays the company more than $1 million annually, an amount that by contract can’t go down even if a Park Board decision were to leave a significant portion of the city without wireless access.

As Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom recalls it, those arguments were all news to her when Lynn Willenbring, the city’s chief information officer, contacted her in mid-December.

"She phoned me and said, ‘Hi, I’m the chief information officer. I want to talk to you about [wireless]. And, oh yeah, we’re on your agenda tomorrow night,’" Nordstrom said. "That was the first I’d heard of it in any official capacity."

Residents and staff noticed in November that the city had been installing temporary poles around the Lake of the Isles to hold up the wireless nodes. Because the city doesn’t actually have jurisdiction over parkland, those were illegal installations. The Park Board had requested they be removed, leading to Willenbring’s presentation before the commissioners.

She in turn was greeted with an hour-long grilling.

Aesthetics vs. safety

The Park Board’s main concern about allowing the installation of the wireless nodes is aesthetic. Will it destroy the look of the parks?

Joe Caldwell, USI Wireless’ CEO, said that’s doubtful. Because they’re only about the size of a football, he said they’re barely noticeable.

"You drive by hundreds and hundreds of these every day," Caldwell said. "I’ve got one [installed] every like 450 feet."

At the same time, the Park Board has had a long-standing policy of not allowing technological installations. It has rejected requests for cell-phone towers, and when cable television was relatively new, the Park Board refused to allow Time Warner Cable to pull wires through the parks.

"In a pure world, I would not like to screw up the aesthetic and what I consider the historic integrity of the Grand Rounds," parks President Tom Nordyke said. "The problem is they’ve gone and designed this entire system — and more importantly, they’ve designed the city’s new emergency-response system — around this project."

The city has emphasized that safety aspect. Minneapolis Police are expected to eventually use the wireless network’s high speeds for such things as digital video uploads, and if commissioners don’t allow wireless to be installed, officers would always be working under technological limitations while in the parks.

That doesn’t mean the end of public safety on parkland, said Lieutenant Mike Kjos of the Police Department’s business technology unit. But it would make for a significant downgrade in abilities.

"If you compare a high-speed cable hookup to going back to a dial-up connection, that’s what would happen every time a squad car leaves into a dead zone," Kjos said. "It’s like going back to that dial-up."

Still, he said, squad cars’ use of wireless is still "a ways away," regardless of how fast the Park Board makes its decision.

Lake of the Isles

There’s also the issue of how many nodes are going up. Out of a total of 41 nodes requested to be installed around the parks system, commissioners counted more than a dozen near Lake of the Isles. By comparison, lakes Calhoun and Harriet would only be surrounded by three to four nodes — combined.

Park Board staff and commissioners told the city they want to see that number down. Caldwell, however, insisted this is the lowest it can go.

"When we first did this design of the areas around the lakes, I think we had to use 150 of the parks’ poles," he said. "We went to the city, and they said ‘no.’ I think we came down to 80. But we had to keep whittling it down and whittling it down."

Caldwell added that the Isles nodes don’t only affect the people who live directly along the lake. Because of the way the nodes piggyback off of each other, the lack of Isles nodes would leave a large swath of neighborhoods in the dark.

He repeated that argument at several neighborhood meetings this month. Along with Willenbring and Nordyke, he sought residents’ input, and at least one group, the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association, voted to ask the Park Board to allow the nodes.

The issue is expected to come before commissioners again at its second meeting of February, although it can stay tabled as long as the Park Board wants. Commissioners said that despite the city’s string of pleas, they don’t feel the need to be in a hurry.

"We have a lot of homework to do," Nordyke said.

The city-Park Board relationship

The relationship between the Park Board and City Hall — two separate entities — can at best be described as tense. Repeatedly cited in park commissioners’ reasons for being upset about the city’s wireless request was that it continued to stir an already troubled pot.

"It’s another chink in a long chain," Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom said.

Another recent example of an issue the groups haven’t seen completely eye-to-eye in is the Park Dedication Fee. The Park Board calls it an essential tool to raise money, repeatedly approving the implementation of the one-time development fee. But the city remains hesitant, with some City Council members arguing it could discourage development.

What about those temporary poles?

Lowry Hill is one of several areas in the city where existing light poles are not strong enough to support USI Wireless’ nodes for the city’s network.

As a result, temporary wood utility poles were installed this fall. They’ll remain in the neighborhood until spring.

Lynn Willenbring, the city’s chief information officer, said the decorative poles in Lowry Hill, Loring Park and several other areas around the city posed a problem because of their fiberglass construction.
"When you attach a wireless radio to them, you attach a metal band around [the pole] … and then you kind of cinch it," Willenbring explained. "It will actually crush a fiberglass pole."

Lowry Hill’s decorative poles mimic a Victorian-era design. The city ordered sturdier replacements in a similar style, and they should arrive this spring, Willenbring said.

She said the City Council appropriated $1 million last fall to cover replacement costs, which will cover the "several thousand dollars" it costs to replace each pole. It will not require additional assessments to property owners, she said.

— Dylan Thomas