Innocuous building near stadium is key hub for regional communications

511 Building
President of Velocity Telephone Jim Hickle, photographed on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, rents this space in the 511 building near the Metrodome in Minneapolis. It's where most of Minnesota's telecommunications networks converge.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The quest for a new Vikings stadium has inadvertently cast attention on a little-known building in downtown Minneapolis that plays a crucial role for anyone who uses the Internet.

It's called the 511 Building and it sits right behind the Metrodome.

State officials have been exploring whether that piece of property could be part of yet another alternative stadium site. But there's at least one big problem with that idea: the building at 511 11th Avenue South is essentially Minnesota's gateway to the Internet.

Jim Hickle, president of Velocity Telephone, which rents space in the building, called relocating the tenants in the 511 Building "not just a bad idea, kind of an insane idea really. The disruption to the metro area, the upper Midwest from this building going away would be unheard of."

Anyone who has ever taken the Sixth Street entrance ramp to Interstate 94 from downtown Minneapolis has likely driven by the building. But the traffic passing by the 511 is nothing compared to the traffic passing through it.

Inside, a soft roar hints at huge amounts of electronic activity.

"That's the fans that are blowing, keeping all the equipment cool," Hickle said.

511 Building
The 511 Building, at 511 11th Ave. S., near the Metrodome on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012 in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The small phone and Internet provider rents space in the 511 Building, joining other companies with familiar names. Among them: Comcast, Verizon, CenturyLink and AT&T.

Hickle said there's a good reason all these companies are clustered together.

"This is the main connection point here in Minneapolis/St. Paul — and really the upper Midwest — to connect to the big backbones of the Internet," he said.

The 511 building is what's called a "carrier hotel." It's a nexus where telephone and Internet networks intersect — both with each other and with the rest of the world.

Without a carrier hotel people on one phone or data network couldn't communicate with people on another one, said Eric Lampland, a member of a small group of technology gurus who helped build the Internet in Minnesota in the early 1990s.

"You have an iPhone, and you're therefore on one of three possible carriers — AT&T, Verizon or Sprint," Lampland said. "I happen to be a T-Mobile person. So if we're going to make a call between us, we have to have some place to come together, to make that traffic transfer from your carrier to my carrier."

The Minneapolis building is the only carrier hotel in Minnesota. There are some smaller operations, Lampland said, but "we only have one large one."

Built like a bunker, with a thick earthen berm running along one side, the building has multiple backup generators and cooling systems.

511 Building
Velocity Telephone rents a small, windowless room in the 511 Building, which is where most of the state's telecommunications networks converge. On Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012, it was filled with storage racks for servers and fiber optic cables.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

If something damaged the 511 Building, Minnesota's access to the Internet would be severely constricted.

That possibility has raised big concerns in Eagan, Minn., which is home to a number of high-tech firms including, WestLaw, a subsidiary of ThompsonReuters that provides online research tools.

In Eagan, even the possibility that the building might go away has raised alarms.

Losing Internet access would be catastrophic, said Tom Garrison, the city's communication's director.

"We have businesses here in Eagan that would lose thousands — in one case maybe a million dollars a minute — if they were down," he said. "That gets your attention pretty quickly, and one wants to make sure that there are multiple pathways that exit the Twin Cities."

So last year, Eagan spent $185,000 to see if the market could support a second carrier hotel. The answer came back 'yes.'

A North Carolina company called Five 9s Digital is planning to build and manage the privately funded 138,000-square-foot data center in Eagan. CEO Doug Hollidge said the facility will be called The Connexion.

The company plans to start construction when it lands a major tenant, perhaps as early as May.

If all goes as planned, The Connexion could be up and running by early next year. But until then, the 511 Building remains the state's only major portal to the Internet.

That's why the state's technology community raised the alarm at the suggestion the property might be part of a Vikings stadium site.

Although Vikings officials say they haven't seen a viable plan to build there, they haven't ruled out the possibility of using the site.

Varun Kharbanda, who is listed as a contact for the building management, declined to comment. But according to news reports, they have vowed to sue the city if a plan emerges to build a stadium where the 511 building stands today.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CenturyLink, a major telephone and Internet provider in Minnesota formerly known as Qwest, says it has an alternate pathway to the Internet and its customers would not be affected if the 511 Building were compromised. As we reported, CenturyLink does have facilities in the 511 Building, but a spokesperson says the vast majority of its Internet traffic travels through an alternate route. Citing security concerns, the company declined to disclose where the alternate pathway is.