City Wi-Fi nears completion

by Anna Ewart

Within the next week, USI Wireless will likely complete a project to provide citywide Wi-Fi access in Minneapolis.

The completion of the project comes at a time when cities across the country are running into roadblocks while attempting to create their own municipal Wi-Fi networks.

Many major cities, like Philadelphia, have faced technology pitfalls and problems with service providers, but the Minneapolis project stands out from others because of an agreement between the city and Minnetonka-based USI Wireless.

In 2006, the city and USI Wireless signed a 10-year contract, under which the private company will cover the cost of building and maintaining the network.

The city agreed to be the network’s “anchor tenant,” committing $1.25 million annually for usage. Having city government connect through USI Wireless creates a subscription base for the network, which will also be available to residents.

The contract guarantees residential services at $19.95 per month for 10 years, but prices vary depending on the plan.

The network is comparable in speed to a DSL connection. Subscribers can access the network at one to three megabits per second.

Minneapolis is also allowing USI Wireless to use its light poles, traffic lights and other facilities to mount wireless network equipment across the city’s 59 square miles.

City officials were able to use completed portions of the network for emergency response following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last summer.

However, people living near Lake Calhoun and Cedar Lake will have to wait.

Joe Caldwell, CEO of USI Wireless, said the company is working on finding and creating infrastructure in those areas to install wireless equipment, in addition to improving speed and reliability.

USI Wireless expects to compete with companies like Comcast and Qwest Communications International in Minneapolis, given that the network is cheap, fast and mobile, Caldwell said.

“It works anywhere and it’s very inexpensive comparably,” he said.

Almost 10,000 people have signed up, he said.

Qwest offers connections at speeds similar to those of USI Wireless, said Qwest spokeswoman Joanna Hjelmeland, but it plans to improve speed.

Mary Beth Schubert, Comcast vice president of corporate affairs for the Twin Cities region, said Comcast services are faster and more reliable, although they are not available across the city.

She said it isn’t the government’s place to subsidize a service that’s in competition with other private-sector alternatives.

Municipal wireless networks haven’t been successful competitors in the past, Schubert said.

“We compete aggressively in the marketplace every day and will continue to do so,” she said.