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Minneapolis no longer a Wi-Fi wastrel

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER
  • Star Tribune
  • October 8, 2012 - 10:56 PM

A dramatic push at Minneapolis City Hall to integrate wireless technology into more city services may eventually salvage millions of dollars that officials once thought was wasted on unused bandwidth.

The turnaround is largely the result of high-definition cameras and police squad cars, which are now helping gobble up the $1.25 million worth of bandwidth Minneapolis pays for every year. The annual payment stems from the city's 2006 decision to become the "anchor tenant" of USI Wireless' citywide Wi-Fi network, which now provides low-cost Internet access to about 22,000 residents.

Finding a use for all the bandwidth has been a challenge -- the city didn't even use 1 percent of it in the first two years of payments. So far, the city has spent about $4.7 million on unused bandwidth, which can be tapped until 2018.

"Believe me, you should have seen some of the meetings in my office if you don't think it was a high priority," said Mayor R.T. Rybak. "But it was not happening."

The city's chief information officer said last week that the city is projected to use $1.175 million, or 94 percent, of its purchased bandwidth this year. That's up from only 11 percent in 2011. He thinks the city may reach $1.75 million -- 140 percent -- in 2013, which would allow the city to start eating the excess bandwidth it has accumulated.

"It is very exciting," said Council Member Betsy Hodges, chair of the city's budget committee. "We are meeting the potential we knew we had with this contract."

The jump is due partly to police cruisers using new, no-fail Wi-Fi/cellular technology, as well as dozens of police cameras that have been outfitted to transmit high-definition images. Citizens can also now get Wi-Fi access throughout City Hall, which was a wireless dead zone as recently as a few months ago.

"I'm surprised to a degree, because I thought the ramp-up would be slower," said Otto Doll, the city's chief information officer, who has guided the effort to increase use. Earlier this year, he made a "conservative" prediction that the city might exceed 23 percent usage in 2012.

When Doll arrived in Minneapolis in February 2011, he expected to find more initiatives to boost Wi-Fi usage in city departments.

"It is surprising that they didn't have a parallel effort that was working on the usage side of the network, versus actually implementing the network to begin with," Doll said.

Doll credits his staff for working with departments to get them online. One of the biggest steps was devising a way for police to use Wi-Fi in squad cars, which was problematic because they would sometimes lose their connection.

"I told people, 'Look, if we don't solve this, we'll never sell it to anybody who's on the move,'" Doll said.

The solution, after extensive testing and tweaking, is a setup that switches immediately to a 4G cellular connection whenever the Wi-Fi signal is lost. About 54 squad cars will have the technology by the end of this year, with another 50 slated to go online in 2013.

Wi-Fi also allows traffic control employees to monitor intersections remotely, transmits images from 32 port safety cameras, and controls messages on 38 downtown street signs.

Public Works uses it to keep track of 13 sander trucks and 60 garbage trucks.

The "anchor tenant" model is fairly unique. A broadband consultant told the Star Tribune earlier this year that he knew of no other city that pledged recurring payments to a private company, regardless of use.

"We created a public/private model that was pioneering and we took a lot of criticism," Rybak said. "And for a while it looked like there was going to be some real challenges."

Rybak said that on top of improving the efficiency of city government, the contract's other goal of providing low-cost Internet service to residents was an early success.

"This from the beginning was a way of using our power in the marketplace to move the private sector, to create a public good," he said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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