We took a laptop out for a test drive of Minneapolis' new wireless Internet service and found that it can be pretty uneven -- unless you have a special booster modem.
In the early spring, some lawns green up faster than others -- and it looks like that's also the case with Minneapolis' newly seeded wireless Internet system.
The long-awaited Wi-Fi network is completed and working. Parked at 60th Street and Washburn Avenue S., I could surf the Internet on my laptop with download and upload speeds of nearly 1 million bits per second -- or nearly every drop of the Wi-Fi speed I pay for every month.
But if you roam with your laptop, depending only on the internal Wi-Fi gear that came with it, what can you expect? With my laptop beside me, I drove around the city to find out -- and learned that the laptop Internet experience may vary a lot.
When I parked near the swimming beach at the south end of Lake Harriet, I got less than half Internet speed I'd found before. Sitting on the beach itself, I got no Wi-Fi service at all.
It seems that the Wi-Fi in the air isn't equally strong everywhere. At 60th and Washburn, I was half a block from an antenna. At Lake Harriet, the antennas were farther away, on Lake Harriet Parkway, which is set back from the lake.
For most home Wi-Fi customers, differences in Wi-Fi signal strength are evened out by special Wi-Fi booster modems available through network builder US Internet of Minnetonka. With those modems ($5 a month to rent or $80 to buy for your house; $160 to buy for your laptop but no rental), your chance of getting a 1 million-bit-per-second download is 99 percent or better, the company says. US Internet notes that its contract with the city guarantees only modem-assisted reception.
As a result, laptop users roaming city streets without special modems can expect more uneven Wi-Fi coverage. If you're close to a city light pole with a Wi-Fi antenna, your laptop reception probably will be quite good. If you're farther away -- say half a block -- reception may be slow or nonexistent. For example, roaming with a laptop will show you:
Impressive speeds: If you're close enough to an antenna, the service is quite good, even with an unaided laptop. At Penn Avenue and Hwy. 55, and farther north in the residential neighborhood of Russell and 23rd Avenues N., I could pick up multiple US Internet antennas and could connect to the Internet at 80 to 90 percent of my 1 million-bits-per- second service level.
Trouble spots: There's no signal at 28th St. and Lyndale Avenue S., an area of auto body shops and beauty spas. US Internet says it makes no distinction between business or residential areas when it comes to providing Wi-Fi, and it's working on the problem area.
Distance limitations: I detected three city Wi-Fi antennas near the quiet residential area of Sheridan and 44th Avenues N., the nearest one tantalizingly close at only a third of a block away. But no connection was possible. US Internet says that with a special laptop modem, I wouldn't have had a problem connecting.
Mysteries of Wi-Fi: At Hawthorne Av. and Upton Avenue N., east of Theodore Wirth Park, I found surprising signal strength, normally a good indicator that my wireless Web surfing was just moments away. But even though my laptop said I had "excellent signal strength," I couldn't connect to city Wi-Fi.
Location, location, location: I got extremely good reception in a residential area at 38th Street and Colfax Avenue. S. next to a public park. Then I realized I was also next to the Lakes District Office of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board which, as a city agency, might be expected to have a good Wi-Fi connection.
The edge of the Wi-Fi universe: At 22nd Street and Hennepin Av. S., where you can find organic foods, a bank and an old apartment building, there is no service. This presumably is because it's on the eastern edge of the well-publicized Lake of the Isles-Lowry Hill-Loring Park Wi-Fi "black hole," which the city has said will be fixed this summer with the installation of new light poles to hold Wi-Fi antennas.
However, your laptop Wi-Fi experience might not be the same as mine.
"The Wi-Fi quality of laptops is all over the board," said Joe Caldwell, the marketing vice president of US Internet. Most laptops without a special modem "should work if you're 100 feet from one of our Wi-Fi antennas. Some other laptops might work from 250 feet away."
Other Wi-Fi devices, such as PDAs and Apple iPhones, tend to have less battery power than laptops and might need to be closer to a Wi-Fi antenna to get the signal, he said.
But what about the experience of typical home Wi-Fi customers who have special modems? There are Wi-Fi supporters and detractors.
Those who like it
"Wi-Fi has been a good, reliable service," said David Poindexter, who lives near 57th Street and Penn Avenue S. and has used city Wi-Fi for three months. The service costs him less than half of what he was paying for Comcast cable modem service, although at the 1 million-bit-per-second speed, Wi-Fi is only one-sixth as fast as cable. "We just do generic Web surfing, and we didn't need the bandwidth of cable."
"I live near Powderhorn Park, which is a little bit of a dead zone for city Wi-Fi," said Elizabeth Rosenberg, who lives near 38th Street and 12th Avenue S. "Sometimes I have to wait a few minutes for the Wi-Fi to get going, and sometimes it stops for a few minutes. It's not as smooth as I would like. But I've noticed a lot of changes for the better as I've used it since December."
"When it's working at top speed, it's tremendous," said Steven Stilwell, who lives near the intersection of Minneapolis Avenue and 33rd Avenue S. He's frustrated that Wi-Fi service often slows down in the early evenings and some mornings, "but the price ($14.95 a month plus the $80 cost of a modem) can't be beat. I've been recommending the service to friends."
Those who don't like it
Bruce Ehlers, who lives near 38th Street and 10th Avenue S., canceled his city Wi-Fi service in mid-March.
"Sometimes I could get a signal and sometimes not, but most of the time it was slower than dial-up Internet service," Ehlers said. "I'm disappointed because I really wanted to use Wi-Fi. But so far it's not working out."
Emily Goldberg, who lives near the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue S., gave up on Wi-Fi last fall after subscribing for six months.
"The service was spotty at best," Goldberg said. "We got very weak signals and slow download speeds. We couldn't watch any video."
Those who would like to like it
Chris Anderson is frustrated that he hasn't been able to subscribe to Wi-Fi at his home near 52nd Street and Bloomington Avenue S. Although he can pick up a Wi-Fi signal with a "coming soon" message, he hasn't been able to learn when he can order service.
US Internet, which says it's been selling Wi-Fi service to different parts of the city in stages to avoid getting too many phone calls at once, will begin taking orders from Anderson's area, west of Lake Nokomis, on Monday.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553