Minneapolis Unplugged

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Googling "citywide wireless" will get you a lot of links from 2004, brimming with optimism about the promise of municipal internet access. By 2006, however, the returns are fewer, and have a sour tone. From San Francisco to Philadelphia, ambitious city network plans stalled, hobbled by technical, logistical, and contractual issues.

Today, Minneapolis is one of few American cities whose WiFi plans are actually succeeding. Minneapolis studied the missteps of other urban networks before signing a 10-year contract with Minnesota-based USI Wireless. The private company manages and profits from the 59-square-mile Wireless Minneapolis network, while the city leverages it to deliver government services and build digital inclusion.

Minneapolis CIO Lynn Willenbring told The Atlantic how her city's wireless network helped Minneapolis through a disaster even before it was built. She also talked to us about bridging the digital divide and letting for-profit companies do what they do best.


lynn.jpgWhat were your goals in developing a citywide wireless network?

First and foremost, our objective was to meet our institutional uses so that our field staff had mobile broadband access, whether they were public safety staff--police and fire--or crews fixing a pothole or inspecting buildings.

Secondarily, we recognized that we would like to help bridge the digital divide. So as part of our arrangement, the vendor, USI Wireless, can sell service to residential and commercial customers as well. We're just the anchor tenant on the network, but it's their network to own and operate. We just have a guaranteed minimum payment for the 10 years of the contract.

On your site, it says that the network played a critical role in enabling the city's rapid response to the I-35 bridge collapse in August 2007. Can you tell me more about that?

We were fortunate that the place where the bridge collapsed was one of the areas we'd built out for a pilot when we were evaluating our two finalists. It happened to be the site run by USI Wireless. So that gave us broadband access right on the shore of the river. The police and fire set up an emergency command center there, a tent and a parking lot, and we were able to access heavy GIS files and aerial photography and video--only because we had wireless broadband access in that spot.

We also utilized the network to put up some wireless cameras a day or so after the bridge collapsed, monitoring the recovery efforts in our emergency operations center, which was in City Hall. And, because the cameras had IP addresses, we could give those to any of our mutual aid partners or other parties who were assisting us. The Minnesota State Patrol was there, the Navy SEALS eventually came in to help remove underwater debris, and the IP addresses made it possible for any of those law-enforcement agencies to monitor the cameras.

Tell me more about why you decided to contract out the network to a private company.

When we initially came up with this ambitious project, we looked at some of the cities that had gone before us, as well as some of the missteps they took--which is why we decided that we didn't want to own and operate the network. Doing it ourselves just wasn't the best model; that wasn't our core competency.

When I talk to others around the country, one of the things they're most interested in is how we make this work financially. To make this work financially, there has got to be a mechanism for the service provider to make a profit. They need to market and provide service that they can provide the citizens of Minneapolis at a competitive rate; other than that, their profit can be unlimited.

Working with USI Wireless also helps ensure that there is coverage border to border. Police and fire respond everywhere. Inspectors are looking at every building throughout the city. We have to have that 100 percent coverage. That helps us where some cities have struggled, because the lower-income parts of the city don't necessarily attract the vendors to build out that network.









USI Wireless claims that Wireless Minneapolis offers benefits to the community that go far beyond what any city has implemented. Are you distinctly farther ahead of any other U.S. city in city wireless or digital inclusion?

I don't want to compare Minneapolis to other cities, but I do feel that we're leaders in this area around the country. There are a few other significant things, particularly around digital inclusion, that we built into our contract. In no particular order --

  • We have accounts for 100 free community technology centers. Sometimes these sites are run by nonprofits, some of them are located in libraries and some are in park and rec facilities. Residents can use the computers there and go online, free.
  • We also have 750 free one-month subscriptions, basically little voucher cards, that those community technology centers get. The idea is that they can give them to the volunteers that are doing the teaching and training.
  • Our Digital Inclusion Fund started with half a million dollars in seed money and is managed by a citizen's group that gives out that money as grants. Five percent of the pre-tax revenues that USI Wireless gets from running the citywide wireless network goes into the fund to replenish it.
  • Five percent of the nodes are free WiFi hotspots across the city. A great number of them are adjacent to parks. The idea was essentially that those hotspots are where people are likely to gather and use a laptop, and they want to have the freedom of WiFi.

Let's talk a more about the Digital Inclusion Fund. What do those grants pay for?

Some of the funds pay for instructional materials and holding classes for the community, some of them pay to purchase computers ... anything that is going to help those more disadvantaged communities when it comes to using the Internet. When you're looking at bridging the digital divide, there are three factors: you have to have the hardware, you have to have access to the Internet at an affordable rate, and you have to have training so people know how to use it. 

That last element is something I think people too often take for granted, that everyone just knows how to get on the Internet and look for a job or apply for a job. More and more, that's the only way to find employment. Particularly if you're a recent immigrant and you didn't have this opportunity in your home country, these are things you need to learn.

Is there some sort of marketing or community-awareness plan in place to reach out to neighborhoods where broadband access has been a challenge?

We did quite a bit of community marketing when we opened the program up with the grants we are providing for the community technology centers. When it comes to marketing to community residents, however, that would be completely on USI Wireless. It would be inappropriate for the city to market on behalf of a private vendor. It's the same as if we were marketing for Qwest or Comcast--that would be a conflict of interest.

Tell me about the Minneapolis Civic Garden component of the network. Is that the city's idea?

Yes. USI Wireless implemented it, but we put that in our original request for proposal. Essentially, it allows free, unlimited access to any site within a walled garden and you don't need a subscription to USI to do that.

The sites that are included in the Civic Garden are all community-based organizations, generally non-profits or government agencies. So obviously the city's websites are included: the Park Board, the schools, the Red Cross, the Metropolitan Transit Authority with all the bus and train schedules--the types of things that everybody needs but cannot access if they don't have access to the Internet and or can't afford the USI Wireless reduced rate.

Do you have any other thoughts about how Wireless Minneapolis might enable the delivery of city services to the community?

As we move into the future, we're hoping to enable even greater interaction with our residents so we can build transparent government and let citizens access that information. Open government is definitely the wave of the future--I think any government that is ignoring it is doing it at their peril. As far as the network goes, I can't say that we have anything specific in the pipeline right now, but as we gain more experience, we fully intend to leverage it to the nth degree.

Image credit: Joe Crocker/Flickr

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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