While Minneapolis continues to make progress with its Wi-Fi network, St. Paul isn't sitting still. The city is focusing on building a fiber optic network that would be the backbone for other networks, including wireless ones. Construction could be two years away.

Editorial: Minneapolis Wi-Fi is quieting the critics

  • February 8, 2008 - 5:46 PM

When the city of Minneapolis embarked on an effort to blanket the city with a wireless Internet connection in 2005, more than a few people, including some at this newspaper, expressed deep skepticism. There were concerns about the project's technical feasibility, as well as questions about private ownership of the citywide network and whether a relatively small local company could handle the job.

Today, city officials expect the network to be completed by early March, with south Minneapolis being the last phase. Residents of parts of the city that were covered in the initial phases of the project have reported mixed but improving performance from the network, which allows Internet access virtually anywhere in the city.

Although the network is a couple of months behind its original schedule and about 20 percent over budget, the delays are not unusual for a project of this complexity and the city isn't on the hook for the cost overruns.

Compared with other municipal wireless Internet projects around the nation, the Minneapolis project is off to an excellent start. Larger cities (Chicago, Houston) and cities with more technology street cred (San Francisco, Portland) have had to temper their hopes because of both technological and financial difficulties.

But the Minneapolis network is well on its way to being financially self-sustaining, according to officials with the company that built the network, Minnetonka-based U.S. Internet Corp. The company said in November that it had 5,000 subscribers and another 7,000 registered for service when it becomes available in their neighborhoods. Subscription rates start at $15 a month, and the company needs 10,000 subscribers to be in the black.

Given the failures of projects in other cities, some outsiders are astounded by the relative success here. "Minneapolis is world-class right now. Based on what they're saying, they have a lot of good trends," said Glenn Fleishman, who runs Wi-Fi Networking News, a website focused on wireless Internet technologies.

It's still too early to call the project a complete success. The main impetus for the network was to improve communication for city government workers, such as police officers, firefighters, building inspectors and other mobile government employees. The network had a fair trial during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, but day-to-day, citywide coverage by tens of thousands of city employees and residents is another matter entirely. Also, the march of technology will inevitably make the city's current network as quaint as tin cans and string. The city is obligated to be an "anchor tenant" of the network for 10 years, a lifetime in the technology industry. The speed and extent to which newer technologies emerge, providing higher performance at lower costs, will change the calculation on the wisdom of the investment in the network.

Tougher tests lie ahead, but, for now, the city has achieved relative success where many others have failed.

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