Minneapolis wi-fi expands rangeby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Construction of the downtown section of Minneapolis' new wi-fi network is almost finished. Once the testing is done, the city will have completed the first of six major sections of the project. Service is already available in parts of southeast Minneapolis just outside of downtown. So far there are about 250 subscribers on board. Some of them say the service has been inconsistent.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Crews are busy downtown affixing the radio transmitters to light poles and other structures. The devices send and receive the data which links a user's computer to the Internet.
Installing a wireless network downtown presents a few challenges. More transmitters are needed in order to get the signal around the tall buildings. Plus people who live or work in tall buildings will need some help getting service.
"Well they probably won't get service on the 30th floor," says Jim Farstad, a consultant to the city on the wi-fi project. He says in time the radio signals will become three dimensional, meaning they can reach upwards as well as outwards. Until then, Farstad says office building owners can set up their own indoor wireless environments if they choose. And he says people who live in highrise buildings should contact U.S. Internet - the Internet service provider for the wi-fi network.
"And the agreement is that if USI cannot reach, through their wireless gear, residences that are located on the 20th or 30th floor of a particular building, then they will provide them with a wired service that incorporates into it the usage of mobile services throughout the city for the same price that other people would pay for a normal subscription," he says.
The cost for a residential subscription starts at $19.95 a month. So far about 250 people have signed up. The initial subscribers are people who live in a one-square mile area that was used as the pilot site for the network. The Minnetonka-based service provider is responsible for building and maintaining the network.
So far, subscriber feedback is mostly positive, says Kurt Lange, vice president of operations for U.S. Internet. But he says because this is all still so new for customers and for his company that there have been some problems.
"There are some [problems] that are easily fixable," says Lange. "Ideally, the wireless modem we send out, we want to get that as near to a window or an exterior wall as we can. We don't want this to be in a data center closet or a basement area or something like that."
But other subscribers have had problems getting clear signals because of nearby trees. Lange says sometimes foliage can act like a lead shield around a house. Lange also says the metal mesh in stucco exteriors can inhibit the transmission of the radio signal. He says problems like these can be fixed by deploying more transmitters or by using a special modem that strengthens the connection.
But some people have issues that are apparently harder to solve.
Peter Haeg, who lives in the Seward neighborhood, signed up for the service a few months ago. And since then, the connection to his house has been unstable.
"It was supposed to have been resolved last Friday," he says. "We got a call saying the trees were absorbing the signal."
Haeg bought the U.S. Internet modem that's supposed to boost the connection strength, but the signal keeps dropping out. And Haeg says there are transmitters located near his home.
"Actually we're equidistant to about three of them, the technician was telling me. And they're all about a block away," he says.
Haeg says recently U.S. Internet placed another radio transmitter at the end of the block. But service is still spotty. Haeg says the repairmen raise their eyebrows in bewilderment when he tells them the problem isn't fixed.
"Yeah, the last word was - probably by next week it will all be sorted out," laughs Haeg.
Haeg says he still has a cable Internet connection, but would like to drop it in order to take advantage of the cheaper wi-fi service. So far Haeg says U.S. Internet hasn't billed him for his trouble.
The next area of town to get hooked up to the network includes the Uptown and lakes area of the city. The whole city is scheduled to be finished in November.
- All Things Considered, 06/14/2007, 5:35 p.m.