Minneapolis is quickly becoming the new poster child for the municipal Wi-Fi movement.
The city is expected to have the majority of its 59-square-mile network finished by the end of this month, and already experts are pointing to the nearly completed network as a model other cities should follow.
Over the past year, citywide wireless networks have gotten a bum rap. Halfway through 2007, EarthLink, which had been leading the charge with big contract wins to build and run networks in San Francisco, Houston, and Philadelphia, started unraveling its Wi-Fi strategy.
By September, the company had pulled out of proposed networks in San Francisco and Houston. And in early February, EarthLink put its citywide Wi-Fi business up for sale.
The rise and fall of the movement has been well-documented by the press. Many critics have said citywide Wi-Fi is dead. I'm inclined to believe the movement is still alive. But the business models used in future deployments will be very different than those the industry has seen from EarthLink and others that have failed to deploy successful Wi-Fi networks.
Currently, Minneapolis' approach seems to have the most legs. In this model, the city government and public-safety agencies act as anchor tenants guaranteeing the service provider, USI Wireless, a contract. In 2006, the city agreed to pay USI Wireless $1.25 million a year for 10 years to build and operate its network.
But USI Wireless is not relying entirely on the city to fund the network. The company is also offering service to residents and small businesses.
Having an anchor tenant, like the city, helps guarantee a hefty stream of revenue, but the residential consumer market also provides USI Wireless with an opportunity to grow its business and increase profits.
"For large to midsize cities, Minneapolis will become the standard model," said Craig Settles, an independent wireless-technology consultant.
Minneapolis city officials recognized the value of having a citywide Wi-Fi network. But during the planning stage, they were unwilling to front the money to build the network. So they looked for a company in the private sector to build and operate the network for them.
"From the beginning, we were focused on the institutional benefits of having a citywide Wi-Fi network," said Lynn Willenbring, CIO for Minneapolis. "But we recognized quickly that we could not create a viable business case for the network operator with just our business. The vendor needs to make a profit. So it's important for them to sell to residential and business users too."
The network asset already proved its worth last year. A portion of the newly constructed network had already been completed on August 1, 2007, when the I-35W Bridge collapsed, allowing the city to use Wi-Fi as part of its emergency response effort.
The network is also getting good response from consumers. So far, more than 8,000 residents have signed up for USI Wireless' service, which is being offered at three different speeds: 1-megabit-per-second downloads for $20 per month, 3 Mbps downloads for $30 per month, and 6 Mbps downloads for $35 per month. The service will compete with DSL service offered from Qwest Communications and cable modem service from Comcast.
How Minneapolis model differs Minneapolis' model differs from that of other cities, which have been less successful in deploying citywide Wi-Fi. EarthLink, the biggest company in the municipal Wi-Fi market, won several high-profile contracts by focusing exclusively on offering residential service. The company also promised free access or reduced access in certain cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco to help bridge the digital divide.
EarthLink did not require city governments or agencies to become customers of its networks. Instead, EarthLink negotiated deals in which it would actually give away service to city agencies in exchange for using city-owned infrastructure like utility poles.
Tempe, Ariz., is another example of a city that did not buy network services, but instead expected to use the network free of charge in exchange for providing access to utility poles. Less than two years after its Wi-Fi network went live, the project is basically dead. Tempe contracted with a network operator called Kite Networks, a division of Richardson, Texas-based Gobility. At the end of 2007, the company cut off service, because it couldn't make any money.
A ComputerWorld article published last month quoted Dave Heck, CIO for the city of Tempe, blaming the failure of the network on Kite Networks for not marketing the service aggressively enough. At its peak, the company was only able to sign up 800 subscribers to the service in a city with 160,000 residents.
"Their rates have been half the cost of wired Internet services, and they could have gotten subscribers if they marketed it right, but they didn't market it well," he was quoted as saying in the article.
But if Tempe had agreed to become a customer of the network, maybe the service would have survived.
Philadelphia's network is nearly 80 percent built. But with EarthLink now out of the citywide Wi-Fi business, the project's future is uncertain. The city is unlikely to finish building the network with taxpayer dollars and it also won't likely run the network. Terry Phillis, CIO for Philadelphia, told the Associated Press earlier this month that selling the network would be the best thing for everyone. But Phillis acknowledged that finding a buyer wouldn't be easy.
But if Philadelphia revised its Wi-Fi contract and promised to buy a certain amount of services from the network provider, it could make the deal more palatable to potential buyers.
"If they aren't willing to support the network as a customer, then the whole thing falls apart," Settles said. "And they've missed a great opportunity." … Read more