Minneapolis WiFi system could close digital divide

Computer games
As part of its contract to provide Minneapolis with municipal wireless, U.S. Internet has agreed to provide money to help provide computer access to people and communities that currently lack it.
MPR File Photo/Marianne Combs

Last week, the Minneapolis City Council awarded Minnetonka-based U.S. Internet the city's wireless broadband network contract. Soon, workers will begin installing around 1,800 radio transmitters on light poles, buildings and other structures. The radios will transmit data between the network and wireless capable computers, phones or personal digital assistants.

James Farstad, program manager for the Minneapolis wireless initiative, says with connection speeds of one- to three-megabits-per-second, U.S. Internet's service makes a viable alternative to high-speed cable or DSL service for some computer users. "It is greater speed, it is bi-directional, it is less cost and it is mobile," Farstad notes. "And depending upon the particular customer's situation any and all of those criteria might be significant advantages that they might want to compare with the alternatives that are available to them now."

Residential subscribers will be able to access the network for $19.95 a month. Cable companies and DSL providers offer comparable speeds but at sometimes twice the money. People with wireless capable laptops can access the Internet from nearly anywhere within Minneapolis city limits.

However, Farstad says there may a few spots where reception may not be optimal.

"The example we have utilized is for instance, the Butler Wildflower Garden," he says. "We don't expect full coverage in a particular area where there is not the required infrastructure to support any type of system like this."

Farstad says Minneapolis wireless also offers a few other notable features. He says it will help the city reduce the amount it already spends on Internet access and other wireless network services. The network will also allow police officers to view real time video from security cameras while in their squad cars and will enable city inspectors to connect with city computers while they work in the field.

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Another feature is the community benefits agreement. Under the agreement U.S. Internet will participate in city efforts to shrink the digital divide between lower and upper income residents.

Catherine Settani, who is leading those efforts, says they will likely include more technical literacy programs for low-income people and immigrants who are learning to speak English. She says the city wants to also add about 200 free internet access points. U.S. Internet has agreed to contribute $500,000 up front to help and five percent of revenues per year, totalling an estimated $10 million over a seven-year period.

Settani says the money will likely go to help organizations that are already working to close the digital divide.

"There's a lot of non-profits already out there doing this. They're just doing this without any money," she says. "They're pulling funds from other programs to run their computer labs and run their basic technology classes. So this is going to provide an opportunity for those agencies to really beef up their programs and do a little more outreach."

Minneapolis is one of 300 U.S. cities that are in some stage of implementing a municipal wireless network, says Craig Settles, the president of Successful-dot-com, a San Francisco Bay-area company that helps businesses and organizations use the Internet and wireless technology.

He says municipal wireless networks are not necessarily revenue generators. Instead, he says they work best for cities, like Minneapolis, that want to improve city services and broaden Internet access to people who can't afford it.

"For those cities that are concerned about those segments of its cities and rural areas in these underserved areas, then this third area of digital inclusion is also a major benefit and justification for doing the network," Settles says.

Construction on the Minneapolis wireless network is expected to begin in three to four weeks and could be operational next fall.