Moorhead finds WiFi a challenge

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WiFi connection node
About 300 tranceivers or nodes around the city provide a wireless connection to the Internet for Moorhead residents.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

When Moorhead fired up its WiFi network more than a year ago, Clair Haugen was one of 3,000 people who quickly signed up.

He was excited to have a high-speed connection for about $20 a month, after years of slow dial-up Internet access.

Here's how the WiFi system works. About a block from Haugen's home there's device about the size of a toaster with two antennas that's strapped to a streetlight. There are about 300 of these transceivers on light poles around the city.

Clare Haugen
Clair Haugen stuck with the city WiFi system because he wants to support the publicly owned service.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

They operate much like a two-way radio. An antenna plugged into Haugen's computer gets a signal from the device on the streetlight. Radio signals, rather than wires, provide the Internet connection.

But the technology worked poorly. Equipment failed. The radio signals were often so weak the connection failed.

"It was worse than frustrating. It was awful," says Haugen. "There were many times when my broadband was slower than my dialup ever was. And I'd try to send an e-mail with a big attachment on it, and it would crash in the middle and I'd lose my e-mail. It is hard on a man's religion. It really is."

But unlike hundreds of other customers, Haugen stayed with the Moorhead system through equipment failure, poor reception and many lost e-mails. He says he wants the city-owned Internet utility to succeed.

Don't rush through the process just because you feel like your neighbor is moving ahead faster than you are. This is not a 'keeping up with the Joneses situation.'

After months of trial and error, he says his system is working well. The city replaced equipment that was not working and Haugen found just the right spot for his antenna.

Haugen is a retired college professor who spends a lot of time on the Internet. He recently collaborated on a script with a Scottish playright. "It was terrific fun. It was a hoot," says Haugen. "And it would have been impossible without a connection that allowed me to transmit sizable attachments."

Clair Haugen is more patient, or as he puts it, more stubborn, than many Moorhead residents. The city-owned WiFi service lost at least half its 3,000 subscribers within a few months.

Moorhead Public Service Director Bill Schwandt says the city needs about 3,500 Internet subscribers to break even. Right now about 2,200 are enrolled. The city lost $1 million on the WiFi system last year.

Schwandt says the city can absorb the loss because WiFi is a small operation compared to city water and electricity utilities. But he'd rather not continue to subsidize the WiFi system.

"The good news is that it works really well now. The bad news was our initial big push, when we had a lot of customers come on board, we lost a lot of customers right off the bat. We've really had to struggle to get those numbers even close to where they probably would have been," says Schwandt.

WiFi antenna
Many Moorhead residents have trouble getting a strong wireless signal inside their homes.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The city made some mistakes, according to Schwandt. He says equipment should have been tested more exhaustively before it was implemented citywide, and Moorhead should not have depended on recommendations from other cities.

But he says mistakes are part of the cost of using relatively new technology. While Schwandt says service has improved, some customers are still unhappy with connections that fail unexpectedly.

Duke Schempp was one of the Moorhead residents who tested the WiFi system before it went public. A couple weeks ago, Schempp returned his equipment to the city and cancelled his Internet service.

Schempp says he climbed on his roof to install an antenna, and tried everything he could think of to make the wireless service work, but he was never able to get a consistent Internet connection.

He says the last straw was when he tried to use Voice Over Internet Protocol, known as VOIP, as a way to make phone calls. The inconsistent WiFi signal made conversation impossible.

Bill Schwandt
Moorhead Public Service Director Bill Schwandt says the city is committed to providing WiFi service to every resident who wants it.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Schempp says he signed a six-month contract with a cable provider for Internet access. He says he'll come back to the city utility if the service improves.

Moorhead Public Service Director Bill Schwandt hopes a combination of better service and competitive pricing will bring customers back. He says the Moorhead high-speed Internet service costs less than half what many commercial providers charge. Becca Vargo Daggett has studied municipal WiFi systems for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Self Reliance.

She says what's happened in Moorhead is not unusual. WiFi is designed for use in small areas, like coffee shops or libraries. She says using it citywide is stretching the technology to its limits.

Daggett says for a citywide Internet system to work there may need to be different technology used in apartments, homes, and businesses.

In this rapidly evolving technology, the next generation of Wireless Internet, called WiMax, is already on the market. While each WiFi transceiver provides a signal in a small area, WiMax is designed to provide a wireless signal to large areas. But Daggett says the technology needs more testing to prove its worth.

Cities need to do their homework and be confident in the technology before installing the equipment, says Daggett. A key finding of her research is that cities don't test the equipment long enough to find problems.

"Don't rush through the process just because you feel like your neighbor is moving ahead faster than you are. This is not a 'keeping up with the Joneses' situation," warns Daggett. "You're going to have to live for many years with the decisions you make, so don't rush into it."

Daggett says municipal networks like Moorhead's help keep the price of Internet access lower, and that improves access to the Internet for residents. But she says customers may not have the patience to stick with an evolving technology.

Moorhead officials say they are committed to offering affordable Internet service citywide. Public Service Director Bill Schwandt says he just wishes the process was less painful.

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