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HIGH ON WI-FI

"Am I disappointed with where we're at? Yes. Am I overwhelmed by it? No. We've run into some challenges, some we anticipated and some we didn't.''

Lynn Willenbring, chief information officer for the city of Minneapolis

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"People started to settle on Wi-Fi as the be-all and end-all broadband solution for every city need they had.''

Craig Settles, analyst

Editorial: Overcoming hype, Wi-Fi holds promise

  • June 17, 2008 - 7:18 PM

The promise of technology often creates unrealistic expectations for consumers. Municipal Wi-Fi, which politicians and marketers across the country have hyped as the best alternative to bridge the digital divide of Internet haves and have-nots -- and a possible solution for world hunger, global warming and mortality -- is a case in point.

Last week EarthLink Inc. abandoned the troubled wireless network it built in Philadelphia, which had been promoted as a national model for citywide coverage and free or low-cost Internet access in a major U.S. market. Meanwhile in Minnesota, the city of St. Louis Park filed a lawsuit against Arinc Inc., alleging that the Maryland company failed to deliver a working Wi-Fi network. The city picked Arinc in 2006 amid fanfare that the firm could create the nation's first solar-powered network.

The stories from Philadelphia and St. Louis Park are products of what industry analyst Craig Settles calls the "crash-and-burn'' era of municipal wireless. It all started in 2005, Settles says, when Philadelphia and EarthLink promised a network that would be all things to all people. That caught the attention of attention-seeking politicians across the country, and soon hundreds of municipalities were jumping on the bandwidth wagon. Many of those local governments -- Settles estimates that 400 or so were working on wireless networks in mid-2007 -- came up with similarly flawed business models, and some of those deals are falling apart today.

That brings us to Minneapolis, which has had its own Wi-Fi ups and downs since its service launched last summer. "Black hole'' service areas -- especially around Lake of the Isles, Lowry Hill and Loring Park -- have plagued the network, and new antenna poles are being installed. More recently, the reemergence of leaves has been a problem, forcing the system's owner and operator, US Internet, to adjust its antennas. Some users have also complained about low download speeds.

Later this month the city will decide whether the network is meeting its contract requirements, and despite the first-year glitches US Internet is expected to get a passing grade from Minneapolis officials. That's the right call. Minneapolis has approached Wi-Fi with modest expectations and a sound public-private business model.

The city isn't shouldering the cost of the network, but it is an anchor tenant that guarantees $1.25 million in annual business for US Internet to provide wireless service for city operations. Some Minneapolis employees and facilities are using the network already, although the police and fire departments won't make the move until the "black hole'' problem is solved, perhaps as soon as September. In addition, about 9,600 individual subscribers now pay about $20 a month for the service.

As Philadelphia scrambled to complete a deal to save its Wi-Fi system on Tuesday and St. Louis Park prepared for a date in Hennepin County District Court, Minneapolis and US Internet were methodically working out the bugs in a network that never promised to be a panacea. Once it's completed, the city will have a cost-effective wireless communications system that covers city services and offers commercial and residential customers a lower-cost alternative for Internet service.

Our advice to existing and potential subscribers: Be patient, and keep your expectations reasonable.

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