Internet service providers in Minneapolis have opened up their public Wi-Fi hot spots for free public use.

US Internet and Comcast, major service providers in the city, have unlocked hot spots to keep people connected through the outbreak.

"When [coronavirus] hit, we're like, like a lot of people, 'Is there anything I can actually do to help?'‚ÄČ" said US Internet's CEO Travis Carter. "In our bag of tricks, this is something that we could do to help."

USInternet spans the city of Minneapolis, running the city's public Wi-Fi service with about 2,500 hot spots. The company did not need official city approval and re-engineered the Wi-Fi to provide the service fairly easily, Carter said.

Comcast also made the call nearly two weeks ago to open up Wi-Fi hot spots in business and outdoor locations, not just in Minneapolis but across the country for 60 days. The company is also providing unlimited data usage and allowing low-income customers to sign up for a free "Internet Essentials" plan.

"This is an extraordinary time and it's vital that everyone stays connected, whether it's for education or work or for keeping informed of the latest developments," said Joel Shadle, spokesperson for Comcast's Xfinity.

Setting up free service is not something new for Comcast. During emergencies, like hurricanes in other areas, the company has provided free Wi-Fi, Shadle said.

US Internet reported that at last count, it had more than 7,300 devices connected to the Wi-Fi, which Carter said was "substantial increase" in traffic. But direct comparisons can't be made because the entire service had never been opened for free before, he added.

The city's information-technology department has advocated before for "digital inclusion," including attempts to bridge a digital divide and technology skills gap in Minneapolis. These efforts have included public computer use and free outdoor Wi-Fi use at about 117 locations before the outbreak.

The period of time this will be in effect remains unknown. Both Comcast and US Internet said they plan to wait and see.

"The million-dollar question is post-COVID-19, we'll re-evaluate to figure out how we want to handle this long-term," he said.

Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this story.

Caitlin Anderson (caitlin.anderson@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.