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Minneapolis' $20 million Wi-Fi completed

Star Tribune

Steve Alexander

January 4, 2010

It is hilarious to read the level of stupidity on people's comments: "What a waste of tax dollars!" - when no tax dollars were used. As a matter of fact, when the City of MPLS switches their services to use USI Wireless over their current provider, they will be realizing substantial savings. "Everyone is moving to WiMAx" - WIMAX has so far been all hype, but please feel free to point to all these awesome WiMAX deployments. "Upcoming 4G networks will be faster than this with 20Mbps speeds" - And if the current cellular provider's internet access business model is any indication, you will be paying 3x to 4x more than USI Wireless for it. Not to mention they will be heavily capped (now monthly caps on 3G access is 5GB per month). Not to mention the cell providers will also put hefty restrictions on what you can use the connection for. "802.11n is faster, the WiFi offered by USI is antiquated and old" - First off, you haven't used it to make such an absurd comment. Second, it is almost a given that they are 802.11n capable, and it can be upgraded at the flip of a switch. "Comcast is faster" - And at least twice as expensive. And you are penalized if you don't bundle. And, you can only use it at your residence. Need I go on? "DSL is faster" - IF you are close enough to the Qwest Central Office to get 7Mbps service, hardly anyone is unless they live in the blocks right next to it. IF the copper loop going from the CO to your residence is not crap. IF the wiring inside your house is not crap. IF other devices on the telephone line doesn't cause issues with the DSL signal. AND when you add all those little pesky fees that come with the line, it is almost twice as expensive. And DSL as implemented by Qwest CANNOT get any faster than what it is now without a MAJOR overhaul by Qwest, which they won't do. Also, you can only use it at your residence. "Government will be spying on you if you use this" - this one is my personal favorite. It seems the retards who say this have forgotten that the Telcos were already allowing the government to spy on all your communications data the past few years. "Government is not suppose to be in business and competing with the private sector" - USI Wireless is not a government entity, last time I checked. "There were already numerous internet options for people Comcast, Qwest, various other DSL options, satellite, mobile cards from ATT, Spring, Verizon" - Already covered Comcast and Qwest above so lets look at the rest. Other DSL options - Mostly defunct or just Qwest resellers, as expensive or more than Qwest, specially since they Telecom Act was gutted. Satellite - REALLY? YOU CONSIDER THAT AN OPTION? HAVE YOU EVER USED SATELLITE? lol. Mobile Cards from cell providers - Slower than USI's offerings, expensive, heavy usage restrictions, insane fees if going over ridiculously low monthly caps. Need I go on? But hey, why let facts get in the way...

The $20 million Minneapolis wireless Internet network has been completed after 2 1/2 difficult years of technical and political delays. The city's next step: getting the police and fire departments using it this year.

Begun in mid-2007, the wireless network's construction suffered from delays caused by technical issues with Wi-Fi equipment, tree leaves that blocked radio waves, a shortage of city light poles with the strength and electrical connections to accommodate Wi-Fi gear and jurisdictional issues between the city and the Minneapolis Park Board.

The network -- built under city contract to provide wireless Internet access to residents and communications services to the city -- now has 16,500 private subscribers, said Joe Caldwell, marketing vice president of US Internet, which owns and operates the network. The company hopes to have 30,000 individual customers in three years, as well as to support growing city use of the network, he said.

The network's performance meets city expectations, said Lynn Willenbring, the city's chief information officer. It meets the city's basic requirement that it provide coverage to 95 percent of the city's 59.5 square miles, and that an individual customer with a special wireless modem can download at a speed of at least 1 million bits per second, she said.

"The network was 99.5 percent completed by the end of December," Willenbring said, adding that a half-dozen areas totaling less than a square mile remain unserved. "We're not abandoning the other areas, but they couldn't be done in December due to a myriad of issues. In a couple of areas we're waiting for Xcel [Energy] to provide adequate electrical power to poles."

But there still is fine-tuning of the network to be done, and plenty of testing before emergency services rely on it, city officials said.  The police and fire switch will affect only data communications, which, for example, gives officers access to criminal records and license plate information in their squad cars. Police and fire vehicles will still have voice communications using standard radio equipment. In addition, the police and fire departments will have the benefit of using private Wi-Fi network frequencies not available to the public, Caldwell said. In an emergency, they can use the public Wi-Fi frequencies as well, and their communications would automatically be given priority over individual Wi-Fi network use, he said.

Much of 2010 -- how much isn't clear -- will be spent testing the Wi-Fi network to make sure the computers in police and fire vehicles can travel throughout the city and still access critical databases, said Sgt. Bill Palmer, spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department.

The Wi-Fi network will largely replace the Sprint cellular services now used to transfer data to and from computers in police and fire vehicles, although the city will retain the cellular equipment as an emergency backup. But details remain to be worked out. The Police Department is looking at Wi-Fi network connection equipment for squad cars that would range from $500 to $5,000 per car, Palmer said. The less-expensive solution has the disadvantage of slowing the existing squad car computers, he said.

"There will be savings either way," Palmer said. "The question is how much savings."

The addition of the police and fire departments will swell the number of city employees on the network, currently about 100 city inspectors. The Police Department alone has more than 200 squad cars equipped with computers, Palmer said. In addition, some of the city's 122 safety cameras and at least one of its gunshot detection microphone systems will be monitored through the network, Willenbring said.

But in 2010 the city will use less than half of the $1.25 million a year worth of services it is paying for, Willenbring said. The unused amount can be rolled over to future years in the 10-year contract, she said.

Steve Alexander 612-673-4553