Minneapolis looks to say hi to citywide Wi-Fi

Derrick Biney

University students might soon be able to access the Internet anywhere in Minneapolis, not just on campus.

The city of Minneapolis has plans to create a high-speed broadband network with wireless connectivity, which would give citywide Internet access to residents, schools, businesses and corporations.

The city’s plan consists of securing a private vendor to build and manage the network. The estimated cost of the project is $25 million, which won’t come out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Instead, the vendor the city chooses to administer the program will foot the bill as an investment and will make its money back as it gains customers, said Matt Laible, spokesman for the city of Minneapolis.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he is excited about bringing high-speed Internet access to every person in every part of the city. Rybak said the network will be very helpful for students, especially high school students who come from the lowest part of the economic scale.

Universal access

Ahmed Tewfik, E.F. Johnson professor of electronic communications, said the city’s idea of building a wireless network would benefit not only the University, but also the Minneapolis community as a whole.

For example, a wireless network would allow city staff members working in the field ” such as police, firefighters, inspectors and others ” to connect in real time to the city’s internal systems.

For field staff members, that means the ability to easily “download” data and access immediate and accurate information at a jobsite, crime scene or emergency, according to a Minneapolis Business Information Services document.

Members of the University, which include professors from electrical engineering and computer science, the University Police Department and the Digital Technology Center, are in pursuit of the University being part of the first pilot programs, he said.

From a pool of 90, two unidentified vendors were chosen to construct pilot projects in February on 1-square-mile areas of the city, in order for their performance to be evaluated, according to the Business Information Services document.

Nothing has been finalized at this stage, Tewfik said. Members of the University are hoping to meet with city officials in the next month to reach a contract agreement.

Rybak said University students would benefit by being able to move around the city, and wherever they went, they could more easily do work. Students could also live in any part of town and have inexpensive access without having to worry if their living accommodations have Internet access.

“Now (students) don’t have to wonder which coffee shop has Wi-Fi, because the whole University will be a “hot spot,’ ” he said.

English senior Brian Trolander said accessing the Internet is very important to him because he has to check his e-mail. Access to the Internet outside his home would give him the freedom to move around as he pleases.

Because he has had wireless Internet access on his laptop while on the University campus, Trolander said life has been less stressful. He said he doesn’t have to wait to use a kiosk or go to the library to use the Internet anymore.

Sports studies sophomore Melissa Goebel said the program would be very helpful because she would be able to work on her class assignments when she is working, because most of what she does is online anyway.

“I work 20 to 30 hours a week,” she said. “It’s hard to find time to do your homework.”

Goebel said it would be nice to be able to sit outside on her porch or go to the park to do her work. She said people could also use the Internet to get on-the-fly directions to where they wanted to go.

With the network built in to Minneapolis, the University faces a bit of a challenge with respect to the St. Paul campus, Tewfik said. University staff members and students at that side have a bit of a disadvantage.

Public vs. private

Becca Vargo Daggett, research associate for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization dedicated to sustainable, economic development, said she applauds the city’s efforts in creating a broadband network.

Based on her research, she believes the city would benefit best from the network if it were owned and operated by the public, such as by the city government or a city nonprofit organization.

Daggett, who co-authored a publication called “Who Will Own Minnesota’s Information Highways?” which explores the different models of public and private ownership, presented her research to the community at a forum last Wednesday at the Acadia Cafe on Nicollet Avenue South.

Forum attendee Angela Hasnedl said she was mad that the city had not explored other options. She said the University could have done a better job than what it has been doing.

Rybak holds to the idea that private vendors are the best option for the city.

According to the Business Information Services document, smaller cities, such as St. Louis Park, are able to use public ownership because of their size.

Also, the document notes, the $25 million price tag for the program exceeds the city’s entire $23 million annual capital improvements budget for all of its capital needs, such as street repair. And this doesn’t take into account the upgrade and maintenance costs associated with the technology.

Rybak said a comment made about the city securing an exclusively private model is not entirely accurate. He said the city is going to make a deal with a vendor who not only gives city staff access to the Internet, but also to residents, schools and businesses, at a reasonable price. This is a good example of a private-public model, he said.

“We are using our buying power as a city to deliver a service for every citizen in Minneapolis,” he said.

Daggett said the city would save money if it went with a public-ownership model. She said City Council members are penny-wise, which stops them from seeing the bigger picture.

“They are so concerned with eliminating gaps that they don’t consider investing in infrastructure that could both lower the cost of city services and improve the quality of life in Minneapolis,” Daggett said.

Rybak said the government, under a publicly owned model, would have to keep investing in infrastructure, which would slow the process.