Faster Wi-Fi headed for Twin Cities, but will people sign on?

Clearwire, an internet service provider that uses a new technology to provide a high-speed connection, plans to bring its wireless service to parts of the Twin Cities, but it remains to be seen if customers are willing to pay extra cash for extra speed and mobility.
Marco Garcia/Associated Press

A new wireless internet option is on the horizon for some Twin Cities residents.

Clearwire, a Washington-based company that wants to bring it here, say they use a new technology that is larger and faster than existing wireless networks. Whether or not people will pony up the extra cash for the additional speed and versatility remains to be seen.

Clearwire is targeting customers like Ben Daniels, who has cable internet at home, but uses the free Wi-Fi some coffee shops and stores offer when he's out.

"I work from my laptop," he said. "I think I'm probably in the target demographic."

Clearwire will have some competition for customers like Daniels. USI Wireless, a Minnetonka-based company, owns and operates Minneapolis' city wide network. Company officials say many of their users connect to the network with their iPhones because it's faster than AT&T's 3G service.

Daniels says he considered going with USI, but he can get free Wi-Fi access at coffee shops. And he says his iPhone works just fine.

"The 3G I get in the Twin Cities is fast enough that I rarely ever connect it to a Wi-Fi access point," he said. "So, there again, just for email or maybe a video every now and then, I don't need much."

3G stands for third generation network, which means it's faster than preceding 1G and 2G networks. Now, Clearwire is about to bring what he calls a 4G network, powered by a technology called "WiMax", to the Twin Cities area. Christopher Comes, the director of corporate communications for Clearwire, said Clearwire is more portable than the Minneapolis Wi-Fi network.

"With [Clearwire], you're no longer trapped at home, a coffee shop or other Wi-Fi hot spots to maintain a data connection," he said.

Clearwire is working out agreements with local governments to allow the company to place antennas on water towers or existing cell phone towers. So far the cities of Brooklyn Park, Mahtomedi, Stillwater and White Bear Lake have either approved or are considering these conditional use permits.

Comes says the company is not ready to make an official announcement, but he says they are looking forward to offering it's service to Brooklyn Park, Minneapolis and more markets later this year.

Comes says not only will their service cover a broad area, but it will offer download speeds, that at times, can reach 10 megabits per second--about as fast as a wired cable internet connection.

USI Wireless has around 16,000 subscribers in Minneapolis, but Vice President Joe Caldwell says he's not competing directly with Clearwire. He says his ideal customer is not looking to spend a lot of money for download speeds they don't need.

"I'm looking for someone who wants to go somewhere in that one to six megabit range," he said. "Which is perfect for watching movies or doing anything I can come up with doing on the internet."

Glenn Fleishman, a writer for an online publication called Wi-Fi Net News, said Caldwell is right.

"There's a couple different tiers of what you do on the internet and a lot of it can easily be done between one and six megabits per second," he said.

Fleishman said USI Wireless customers who are able to stream Netflix movies or television shows from websites like Hulu may not immediately jump to Clearwire, especially if it means paying a few dollars more.

However, he said WiMax technology has a few advantages over Wi-Fi. He said the technology is made to work outdoors and its speeds are more consistent because it doesn't share bandwidth with other carriers.

Fleishman says there are few WiMax networks in the U.S., but the number is growing. He said more and more people expect to have internet access where ever they go.

"People want to have internet access, all the time," he said. "They're used to it...They view this as either an indulgence or something that's necessary for them to keep connected when they're out of the home for social networking or other purposes."

Fleishman said he can't predict if Clearwire's presence in the Twin Cities will cause a big shift in the marketplace from traditional high-speed internet service providers like Comcast and Qwest to WiMax and Clearwire. But Fleishman said it's not a stretch to guess that the competition will push each provider to boost their speeds and drop their prices.

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