Minneapolis Wi-Fi Network Is Foundering

Published May 1, 2009

Minneapolis’s citywide wi-fi network is not exactly “citywide,” and a few areas are taking much longer than promised to bring online. The problems are typical of municipal wi-fi networks, which have failed in scores of cities around the country.

The Minneapolis project started in 2006, when the city signed a 10-year agreement with USI Wireless of Minnetonka. The city is paying about $1.25 million a year over the course of the contract, according to published reports. The city also had to spend about $1 million for new light poles when some of the ones that USI initially placed transmitters on proved too weak to support the extra weight.

Even with its limited scope, the Minneapolis project has hit snags. The project was to have been completed in the spring of 2008, but city officials said technical problems with connections caused delays.

Record of Failure

The financial troubles of municipal wi-fi are well-documented. EarthLink pulled out of similar plans in San Francisco and Corpus Christi, Texas and in late 2007 announced it would no longer make significant further investments in its wi-fi division, laying off 900 employees and seeking to sell the operation.

In addition, city wi-fi schemes not involving EarthLink failed in the towns of Aurora and Naperville in Illinois and in Portland, Oregon and at least two dozen other municipalities.

“We have seen municipal wi-fi projects introduced with great fanfare, then wither and die,” said Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta, Georgia-based wireless and telecom analyst. “This has happened time after time. What will make this one different?”

Private Firms Succeeding

Kagan said it’s “a good idea” to have a city blanketed with wireless access to the Internet, but it’s best to let private firms build and maintain those networks.

“The traditional telephone company would be a good candidate to operate these networks,” Kagan said. “If that does not work, then other firms—such as a local cable television company—can do it. If businesses are not interested, then the government wants to step in.

“But then they compete with traditional businesses with their offerings,” Kagan said. “Is that fair to the businesses? No.”

Resist Government Projects

In some cities, such as Chicago, wi-fi projects stalled in the discussion stages because the city refused to be an “anchor tenant” providing ongoing funding for the venture.

Governments serve their constituents better by removing roadblocks to competition in public-use wi-fi, says Ken Fellman, an attorney for Denver-based Kissinger & Fellman and the incoming president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers.

“The private sector should be encouraged to compete,” Fellman said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.