US Internet hopes to have 30,000 individual customers in three years, as well as growing city use.
In October 2007, Bill Witzany of US Internet installed a relay node on Lasalle Avenue in Minneapolis to improve the Wi-Fi signal strength in that area. The network, built under city contract, suffered technical and political delays.
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