Solar Wi-Fi service won't see light of day
- Article by: JENNA ROSS
- Star Tribune
- January 23, 2008 - 7:59 PM
St. Louis Park is abandoning $1 million worth of radios, poles and solar panels erected to create the nation's first citywide wireless Internet service powered by the sun.
It's another step in the city's falling out with the project's Maryland contractor Arinc -- a breakup that council and staff members said has "sickened" them.
"We're going to tell Arinc, 'Come get your poles, take them out of the ground, stick them someplace where the solar panels won't work at all,'" Mayor Jeff Jacobs said.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the City Council directed staff to negotiate with Arinc for the removal of the infrastructure it has installed.
Clint Pires, the city's chief information officer, said much of what Arinc built is in "the wrong locations" with "the wrong materials," and salvaging the solar project could cost another $3 million, on top of more than $800,000 the city already has spent.
St. Louis Park hopes to recoup its expenses and has discussed suing Arinc to do so.
Next, the city must decide whether to begin anew with a different contractor or abandon the Wi-Fi project altogether.
Jacobs said he hopes to ask residents what they think: Should the city continue pursuing Wi-Fi after a yearlong setback?
"First, we have to find out if this technology is doable," Jacobs said. "It sounded cool for a while. We'd be using cutting-edge technology in a cutting-edge suburb. But is it really possible? This is Minnesota, for heaven's sake."
In testing what Arinc had built, the city found that small portions of the network functioned well, providing a high-speed connection. But in other areas, the solar panels were placed in spots where they did not get enough light to power the radios' batteries.
The idea of using solar power was Arinc's, and it was one reason the company said it could offer the lowest bid to build the city's network. Its proposal -- at $1.7 million -- was $700,000 less than the next lowest bidder, in part because most Wi-Fi networks rely on electrical poles, and renting that space and power is expensive.
Company had good reputation
Pires said the city did its due diligence in accepting Arinc's bid, as the company had created about 30 other Wi-Fi networks, although none of them was solar-powered, and managed mission-critical airplane communications.
Arinc officials have declined to be interviewed for past articles and did not return calls this week. But in a Dec. 17 letter to the city, Arinc officials pointed to issues they said they could not control -- such as network interference -- as reasons why the network was not functioning well.
Since then, the city has tested the system and "found that one of the areas where they cited interference was the one that tested the best," Pires said. "The claim of interference has no basis."
After delays in building the network and the poor system tests, the City Council in December found Arinc in default of its contract with the city. It was the first step in dissolving the contract entirely.
The city has prepared for wireless for more than two years, in part by creating a pilot project in a small area of the city. The city has spent about $380,000 on that pilot, said Jamie Zwilling, the city's communications coordinator. The 200 residents testing that network, which is not solar-powered, will continue to receive service -- at least until the city decides whether to try again to create a citywide network.
"We know a whole lot more than we did a year ago," Council Member Loran Paprocki said. "And we need to use that to, if we continue with Wi-Fi, create a better system -- which may look a whole lot different than what's in the ground right now. These poles aren't worth $3 million to us."
Some residents will be happy
The removal of the poles probably will please some residents who complained from the start that they block their views and could decrease their home values.
"More than the money, the biggest concern I've heard from people is the poles themselves," Jacobs said.
Carol Sinn, who complained when "that silver pole with the god-awful huge panel" was put up near her house, said she was "overjoyed" to hear that the Wi-Fi poles would likely come down.
"It's funny that after all that, they'll be removed," she said. "Hopefully, they've learned from all this."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168
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