Citywide Wi-Fi plan gets local tryout

Kids took over the laptops at Brian Coyle Center, where the Wi-Fi pilot project was launched.

Photo by Roxanne Johnson

West Bank logs on to pilot project

CEDAR-RIVERSIDE—Already a West Bank hub, the Brian Coyle Center was abuzz with activity and connectivity July 14 as about 100 people dropped by to try out the new Minneapolis wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) pilot project.

The first 60–75 people to come through were mainly adults, curious neighbors along with city officials, consultants and representatives of vendor U.S. Internet, according to Katherine Settanni, director of Community Computer Access Network (C-CAN). But once most of the adults left, their kids took over the computers, excited about using the wireless technology.

Ahmed Jirde, 10, a Riverside Towers resident said of the Wi-Fi service, “It feels like a new generation. There are no pop-ups or spam. Everything comes up great. It’s fast!” He said he uses the computer to do science and math, and some games, but his computer at home is not working.

Zackary Ali, 11, said, “They have good, fast screens.” Would he use Wi-Fi outside of his home? “Maybe.” One Somali boy, 9, choosing to remain anonymous, said, “My father does all the reading of the news on the computer. I do homework on it, and my father helps me. This computer is real fast.” He was testing Wi-Fi by playing Teen Titans and, like many of the others, science games.

Another Wi-Fi pilot project launched a week earlier in North Minneapolis and is being conducted by Earthlink, U.S. Internet’s rival for the contract to provide citywide wireless internet access. Each pilot project covers roughly one square mile, and is available in homes, community centers and other buildings as well as places out of doors within the service area—even the middle of the Mississippi River. (In theory at least, a riverboat pilot could participate.)

The wireless Minneapolis pilot projects will operate for 60 days, during which the city of Minneapolis will evaluate the systems and select the vendor that will build and manage a citywide wireless Internet network. The Minneapolis City Council will vote on the final contract, perhaps as soon as late August. In the meantime, a contract negotiations team will work with the vendors to develop the final contract, which includes a Community Benefits Agreement developed by the Digital Inclusion task force, a collaboration between C-CAN and the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. They conducted neighborhood surveys and roundtable meetings to determine community benefits that would be included in the winning vendor’s contract.

James Farstad, business and technology consultant to the city, said four things are central to the Community Benefits Agreement, which will be woven into the contract. “The vendor must provide: 1) as much access as possible, 2) equipment, 3) computer literacy training, and 4) local relevant content, such as a ‘walled garden.’”

Walled gardens are content-related front pages—neighborhood portals featuring community and local and regional government services available such as local businesses, emergency services and neighborhood resources. Farstad said there are great walled gardens in San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; New York City; and Brisbane, Australia; and, he added, Atlanta, Georgia has a great job resource front page. There could be as many as 70 different neighborhood portals in Minneapolis, he said, “I have a tremendous vision of neighborhood-specific businesses and services.”

Using Wi-Fi during the pilot may be a challenge if you’re inside a building with stucco, aluminum or steel walls, or with highly energy-efficient windows—metal creates interference. Farstad said they are testing radio interference units that vendors will provide so people can access Wi-Fi in spite of their metallic surroundings. Naushad Kasu, a U.S. Internet representative, said at the kickoff event that the devices help people get signal strength from local radio. They also increase the speed of Internet service—normally 4,500 kilobytes per second (kbps)—to as much as 6,500–7,000 kbps.

At the event, people mainly had questions about how Wi-Fi works, and whether it will be less expensive than Internet service technology already available, such as DSL. Kasu said the pricing hasn’t been determined yet, but there will be four to five pricing structures, including a prepay voucher system with allotted time; a subscription-based system with a credit-card process; and a credit card-based, pay-as-you-go system with no user name or password necessary—useful for instances such as waiting at the airport.

Vendors turned in their “best and final” proposals July 21 to the City of Minneapolis. Contract advisory and negotiation teams will respond to the proposals, noting provisions they want to see in the contract that are lacking or missing. After revisions, and once a vendor is selected, those teams will continue to work with the winning vendor on the final contract. The final contract will be submitted to the city council for approval after which construction will begin, likely in September. The city will be covered in Wi-Fi within nine months to a year from September. Farstad noted the cost for wireless would be around $20 a month, significantly less than any other service available.

Anyone can easily access the wireless technology (unless there is metal interference) anywhere within the Cedar-Riverside pilot area (bounded by Cedar, Franklin and Riverside avenues) if you have a wireless card. Just go to a pilot area, open your browser, and it automatically goes to the U.S. Internet site, where you can log on and fly.

For more information, visit www.digitalaccess.org.

last revised: August 9, 2006