April 12, 2005
The city of Minneapolis is receiving proposals to develop city-wide, wireless Internet access. The drive to provide cheap broadband service known as WiFi began almost two years ago. Cities around the country are scrambling to provide wireless services to residents. City officials say the Minneapolis system could be among the largest in the country.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Minneapolis residents already have WiFi internet access at various coffee shops, cafes, and hotels. The new proposal would create a network of wireless access points called 'hot spots'. Using properly equipped lap top computers, subscribers could log onto the Internet anywhere in the city. City council member Gary Schiff first spearheaded the idea.
"We're looking at creating an umbrella throughout the entire city of Minneapolis," Schiff said. "So if you're on a light rail train and you get on at 46th and you're going downtown you can pull out your lap top and do work, read the paper online and do some things that today you wouldn't be able to do."
WiFi is short for wireless fidelity. The network would consist of wireless access points on city owned buildings and light poles. The winning bidder would assume the upfront cost of the network estimated to be as much as $20 million. The city pays nothing. Schiff said the construction and administrative costs are among the reasons the city decided to not provide the Internet access on its own.
"The technology changes as well slightly," he said. "It's been evolving over the last couple of years. So rather than worrying about creating competition for other companies and competing with the private sector I think leasing it out is the best way we decided to go."
Under the plan, the city of Minneapolis itself would be an anchor tenant for the winning WiFi bidder. Currently the city's communications among employees is run through a patchwork of fiber optic lines and various services. Some city inspectors who provide on-site inspections, for instance, currently have wireless service through Sprint Cellular.
Minneapolis Director of Business Services Bill Beck said the new wireless plan allows all the city's business to come under one service, which is cheaper.
"Those are very costly services for us," he said. "What we will be doing is totally getting out of the business and essentially buying those services from the provider."
St. Paul officials are also discussing their options for WiFi service. Beck said the two cities have had ongoing discussions about making the network more than city-wide.
"Once they have the core capability in place expanding the reach of it is very economical," he said. "So St. Paul is very interested in the possibility that this could be expanded into their city as well."
The Minneapolis plan is different than wireless services in Chaska and Moorhead, where the city owns and operates the system. It's also different from Philadelphia's network run by a separate non-profit organization. In Minneapolis, the entire system would be privately owned and operated.
Esme Vos who runs the Web site muniwireless.com, which monitors cities efforts to provide wireless broadband access, said private systems are easy to start but could have cost down the line. She compares the deal to a cable TV franchise.
"The drawback of that model of course, like the cable model, is that it's a monopoly," she said. "There's only one company that's delivering service."
Vos said without adequate protections, the provider could get away with shoddy service or may have the ability to raise prices at a later time without input from subscribers.
If all goes as planned, the city expects to sign an agreement with the winning bidder by the end of the year. It could be another year after that before the service is available to Minneapolis residents.