The ups and downs of Minneapolis Public Wi-Fi

Matt Aho

As I’m sure many of you know, the City of Minneapolis in 2006 signed a contract with a company called USI Wireless, based in Minnetonka, to provide the entire city with wireless Internet coverage. It was heralded by some as a milestone in Minneapolis’ technological advancement. In fact, Minneapolis’ wi-fi system is one of the few city-wide systems that has been successful around the country. But all I have to say is, "Ehh, it’s alright."

I’ll explain a little about how it works. When you sign up for City of Minneapolis Public Wi-Fi, you are really signing up for service through USI Wireless, so from here on I’ll probably be talking mostly about USI. USI has put transmitter radios up on light poles throughout the city at approximately 1-2 block intervals in order to cover the whole city with a wireless-g signal. They call these transmitters "nodes."

Right now USI has two types of service available to purchase: Home and Roaming. With home service, they give you a wireless modem that has a powerful enough antenna to easily transmit and read data from far distances. This allows higher internet speeds than the roaming service, which is basically just giving you an account so you can log on with your laptop’s wi-fi from all over the city. I’ve found the roaming speeds to be really slow and unreliable. The home speeds available for purchase are 1Mb/s, 3Mb/s and 6Mb/s for approximately $20, $30 and $40 per month, respectively. If you sign a yearly contract or pay for several months with one lump sum the monthly price is reduced. The wireless modem costs $79 to buy or $5/mo if you want to rent it.

My adventure with USI first started about a year ago when I moved into a new apartment and my roommate had been using the service. I thought it was pretty cool. I felt like I was rebelling against Comcast and Qwest’s tyranny and stranglehold. And I still like this aspect of it. Comcast caps their customers’ bandwidth at something like 250GB/month and Qwest has a similar policy of booting customers who use the Internet too much. USI, as far as anyone knows doesn’t have any bandwidth limit or throttling.

But even though USI may not throttle bandwidth, it can sometimes feel like it. Within my first month of usage the network went down at least once. And I got disconnected from the node several times. In the beginning it was a very unreliable connection. I later learned that this was probably because my house was stucco, and the wire mesh inside the walls can interfere with the signal. So my roommate moved the antenna to the window in direct line-of-sight to the node, and all was well. A few months later the Internet connection kept going down so I called their tech support and they ended up fixing the broken node or something, because the Internet started working again. However, their tech support treated me like I had no idea what I was talking about most of the time and made me repeat steps that I had already taken myself and told them about on the phone. They did get the problem fixed though.

So last month my roommate moved out and took the Internet with him. It was kind of neat, nifty, if you will, that one can move to somewhere else within the city and take the Internet connection with, just by moving the modem. I don’t know, maybe you can do that with DSL too, but my roommate didn’t even have to tell them about it, although he probably should have. But this left me with a problem. I was now without an Internet connection. So I called up USI and was eager to get my Internet set up right away.

However, things had changed from a year ago when my roommate signed up for service. When he had signed up USI mailed the modem to him with instructions on setting it up. Of course, he may not have done it exactly right and that might have been responsible for the poor service we received in the beginning. So USI now requires everybody to pay a $25 installation fee and have a professional set up the modem to ensure that the signal is of optimum quality, which reduces complaints from people who didn’t set it up correctly. All future service to the connection is also free. I think this is a good idea, actually.

But USI gives no option to waive the fee or even still pay the fee but install it yourself. Which is why I was really angry when I found out that I would not be getting Internet installed for 18 days from the date I ordered it. EIGHTEEN DAYS. That’s more than half a month. Since when is this kind of delay acceptable? I called back and complained and begged them to let me install it myself, since I already knew all the technical details from using the service for a year, but they wouldn’t budge. The complaining did, however, get my installation date moved up four days. Not great, but it’s something. During this time they provided me with their roaming service so I could use my laptop directly on the network. I usually got terrible speeds of about 250kb/s to 500kb/s and the connection was unreliable. Really unreliable. It would go out constantly and it was nearly impossible to get any sort of schoolwork done with it or watch videos on Youtube. The connection also wasn’t encrypted.

Well, I finally have the Internet set up, and it sure is nice to have a good 3Mb/s connection. But the connection has been somewhat unreliable, despite the node being about 50 feet away, directly out my living room window. I think their network still has a lot of bugs, even after these 2 years of being operational. Just on Sunday there was a network outage, although they did send me an email to let me know what happened. I will still have trouble browsing the Internet from time to time, though, even though neither my modem nor local network have any apparent problems.

There are also plenty of accounts from people who are not as lucky as me to have a node right outside their window. For some people it may just be impossible to get a 6 or 3mb connection. USI acknowledges this though and usually seems pretty good about letting the customer know the truth.

All things considered, I still have to recommend USI over Comcast or Qwest, if you can get reliable service. A USI tech support guy once told me that he prides the company on the fact that they don’t throttle or cap the bandwidth of their customers. USI does seem to be one company that is continually involved in trying to improve its infrastructure, unlike larger ISPs that just complain about how their customers are taking up too much of their resources and then raise prices and cap bandwidth. And Comcast and Qwest are really expensive after their introductory period.

Sorry for this unwieldy tome of a blog post. To simplify things I’ll do this:

Pros: No throttling or caps. Cheap service. Fight the power! Fairly helpful tech support. Speeds comparable to DSL.

Cons: Can be unreliable. EIGHTEEN DAYS before setup. No self setup. Roaming service sucks.