The Twin Cities works to go wireless

Minneapolis and St. Paul are working to create citywide wireless networks.

It’s hard not to marvel at the prospect of surfing the Web in the middle of a park. That luxury will be a reality in Minneapolis and St. Paul within the next few years, as both cities moved closer this week to developing citywide wireless Internet systems.It’s heartening to note that while state legislators remain mired in political sideshows like gay marriage, elected officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul are providing the kind of leadership that once made Minnesota famous.

On Wednesday, Minneapolis formally requested bids from private companies to build and maintain the city’s wireless network. Officials envision a privately owned and operated network of Wi-Fi antennas atop traffic signals, buildings and light poles. City residents could access the system for a modest monthly subscriber fee.

St. Paul officials are further behind but headed in the same futuristic direction. The St. Paul City Council announced this week it is studying various ways to develop a wireless system and hopes to have a network available by 2007.

The case for going wireless is hard to dispute. Wi-Fi technology would streamline government communications and save cities millions of dollars in administrative expenses. A wireless network is also critical if the Twin Cities metropolitan area is to maintain a business-friendly environment. Nor do citywide networks require large public expenditures. The plan in Minneapolis would offer a private contractor access to public landmarks like traffic signals in exchange for exclusive rights to provide wireless service. Only private funds would be needed to finance the construction and maintenance of a network.

These are fine arguments, but the best reason to champion the wireless cause is the chance to bridge the growing digital divide. For too many Minnesotans, poverty remains a barrier to the Web and the new information-rich world of the 21st century. Coupling a citywide wireless service with free Web access and even free computers for low-income families should be a funding priority at the State Legislature.

City officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul should be congratulated for their commitment to building Web-savvy computer-literate communities. State legislators could earn similar adulation by providing cities with the funds to include low-income people.