Minneapolis City Council votes to go wireless

The council voted 12-1 in favor of a contract for a new wireless Internet system to blanket Minneapolis.

Charley Bruce

Following in the footsteps of Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Minneapolis City Council passed a measure Sept. 1 to make a citywide wireless Internet network a reality.

The council approved a deal for a 10-year contract with Minnetonka-based US Internet. The system will provide service for residents at a $20-per-month fee cap for individuals and a $30-per-month fee cap for businesses.

US Internet will pay $20 million for the infrastructure. The city agreed to pay at least $1.25 million a year for the next 10 years.

The measure passed by a 12-1 vote. Cam Gordon, Ward 2 council member, was the lone dissenter.

“I liked a lot of (the ordinance) and didn’t have a problem with most things,” Gordon said after the council meeting. “I just wanted a little more time to go over the specifics.”

He said he wanted safeguards to ensure US Internet would provide service for the full 10 years. His concern was that a large competitor, such as Comcast or Qwest, would purchase the small company.

Gordon also said he wanted to let the public view the terms of the contract.

The council chose US Internet after EarthLink and US Internet carried out pilot programs in specific parts of Minneapolis, Gordon said. Nine other companies showed interest in the program.

The agreement has measures attempting to lower the digital divide.

Part of the deal was a community benefits agreement, Gordon said. The company will provide resources to create opportunities for those unable to access the Internet.

A revenue-sharing mechanism of 5 percent created the digital inclusion fund, which will provide services and connection in parks and libraries, Gordon said.

It’s going to be considerably cheaper than private service providers, said Nihar Jindal, a professor at the University’s Digital Technology Center.

“I think they’re looking at $20 a month compared to high-speed cable or DSL, which are more like $40 to $50 a month,” Jindal said.

The Minneapolis system will deliver Internet access across a large area in generally the same fashion as San Francisco and Philadelphia, Jindal said.

The system is like a coffee shop “hot spot,” Jindal said: Users within range of the signal will get Internet on their computers, with enough hot spots throughout the city to provide continuous Internet access.

“It’s really like a cellular network, but with Wi-Fi,” he said.

The system will have benefits for city services as well.

“It can serve the dual purpose of being available to just residents, but if there is an emergency it can provide a network for emergency purposes,” Jindal said.

Diane Hofstede, Ward 3 council member, said the system has the potential to give emergency responders more information.

“I feel good about this,” she said. “It’s a step forward in the right direction.”

The system will be able to connect different emergency services, Hofstede said, to allow police units to communicate with each other or with the fire department.

Eventually, the fire department would be able to download the floor plans of a burning building, she said.

University students and faculty members could benefit too, and could soon be able to access the Internet even while out of range of the University’s wireless network, Gordon said.

Jindal said US Internet most likely will use the standard Wi-Fi band. He said he doesn’t believe it will have a big impact on the University’s wireless system, since US Internet likely will not put as many receptors in the area.

“There is big hope the University will take advantage of this and join in to the entire system,” Gordon said. “There was big interest from the city making sure this could meet the University’s need for Internet access as well.”

US Internet did not return calls for this story.