Downtown without wires

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May 3, 2004 // UPDATED 1:26 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Wireless Internet access anywhere Downtown? One entrepreneur is on the verge, but plenty of others provide limited service for free

Collages of pea green circuit boards hang on the walls of Implex.net, 109 S. 7th St., where brainiac CEO Stuart DeVaan plots to take over Downtown -- wirelessly, that is.

DeVaan is currently masterminding a mesh of high-speed wireless Internet access throughout the skyways and area towers, allowing Downtown users to click and go, cable-free, wherever they go.

DeVaan -- who also plays in the local industrial band Savage Aural Hotbed -- secured approval from numerous area landlords to channel the modem-less broadband antennae throughout Downtown's infrastructure, focused toward heavily trafficked spaces such as cafes, restaurants and bars.

"Anybody in business, or anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop, or anyone Downtown can eat while connecting," DeVaan said. "We're setting it up for everyone -- basically whoever wants high-speed access."

Like cellular phone plans, Implex.net subscribers could log in whenever or wherever they wanted Downtown. Also, residents will be able to connect to the wireless network through their phone, cable or satellite lines.

Implex.net tested equipment in April, but customers should be able to log on in early May, DeVaan said. Although fees haven't been fleshed out yet, Implex.net will probably give away the first hour of wireless activity and charge $34.95 per month or $6.95 per day. (Implex will also sell a $10 wireless card to those who don't have one built into their computers.)

Right now, DeVaan is lighting up Peavey Plaza from the roof of WCCO-TV, 90 S. 11th St. Repeaters will also be perched atop the Baker Center, Northstar Building, Pillsbury, Piper Jaffrey, One Financial Plaza and Wells Fargo towers (and outside Downtown, at the Bloomington Wells Fargo Plaza, Shoreview Transmitter Tower, Osseo Water Tower and the Northland Inn).

Property managers are excited about the features of this wireless net. "It's a convenient building amenity for tenants, employees and other visitors," said Hans Okerstrom, Baker Center' general manager through Equity Commercial Services, 730 2nd Ave. S. "It gives existing tenants and vendors an advantage over other locations. They'll be able to log in from a coffee shop in this skyway, versus the caf/ across the street, for example. Retailers are looking forward to promoting it for their tenants," he said.

The Baker Center plans to install large flat-screen panels that will be logged on to the network, Okerstrom said. The panels, which will be over 30 inches square, will display directions to hotels and the Minneapolis Convention Center, 1301 2nd Ave. S. The visitor screens will be mounted above "You Are Here" tenant directories, he said.

One Baker Center panel will be located at a passage near the TCF building, another will be fixed near Dairy Queen, and a third will be fitted in the corner near the Baker and U.S. Trust skyway that leads to the American Express Tower, Okerstrom said.

The Baker Center approached DeVaan about finding a way to link the screens to the Web. "Stuart suggested the wireless plan they'd been kicking around. It was the perfect solution. I'm anticipating this getting completed in the next 30-60 days," said Okerstrom, anxiously.

The quality of the broadband is also a virtue of Implex.net's pipeline. Said NCS Communications spokesperson Tim Sheffler, "The cost is cheaper than a T-1 connection, there's no down time and it works very well."

NCS Communications is a satellite data company that also installs wireless hotspots. Scheffler said they receive Implex.net's bandwidth from Downtown.

For the geekery of it

While Implex.net's network is quickly expanding, other smaller wireless hotspots are proliferating individually in Downtown coffeehouses, bars and restaurants.

Signs that say, "Free Wi-fi," "Your Laptop Will Love it Here," "Bring Your Kids, They'll Show You How to Use It," "Think of it as Caffeine for Your Laptop," are plastered on the window at Dunn Bros, 925 Nicollet Mall, where owner Tom Witheridge started offering free wi-fi a few weeks ago. "I know the signs are ugly, but I want people to know we have it," Witheridge said.

Although many Dunn Bros already offer wireless service and the Dunn Bros company encourages shops to go wireless, it's not required, Witheridge said. Still, he decided to pay the $600 equipment cost and $50-75 monthly fee. "I did it to stay competitive. Everybody else is doing it."

Witheridge said he feels lucky that the wi-fi access spreads evenly throughout the store, without any dead spots. Witheridge, who claimed to be technically backward, is impressed with the response: "Look around, look at all of the laptops. The laptop usage has doubled or tripled. It was very easy to work with a modest amount of money. I'm glad I did it. I should've done it a long time ago," he said.

He attributes the popularity to a large number of "techie" patrons. In fact, one of his regulars set up the caf/'s wi-fi. Another techie customer, Corey Budahl, sold Witheridge his wireless card. Budahl, who runs his own business, All-in-One-Laptops, inspected a barista's laptop with a magnifying glass at a nearby caf/ table.

Budahl, who's also a kinesiology student at the University of Minnesota, is a frequent wireless user. He offers PCs with built-in wireless capabilities. Budahl said he finds most of his business from the coffee shop, where he tacks fliers that advertise an inexpensive, user-friendly laptop. "This is the perfect location, right here on the mall. I come here to surf, for the atmosphere and the people."

Budahl is a Dunn Bros target customer: "I'm not going to pay. I don't support paying a lot of money for bandwidth," he said.

Dunn Bros hopes to get the jump on bigger competitors such as Starbucks, who peddle a pay-as-you-go password-protected T-Mobile system (for $6 per hour, among other plans).

Dunn Bros passwordless system is more casual -- or, as some might say, less secure. For example, seated by Dunn Bros'

window, Budahl can "see" a guy named Sully across the street at Target, 1000 Nicollet Mall, surfing on the Dunn Bros wi-fi (each "node's" range can be several hundred feet and doesn't necessarily stop at a business's front door). However, Budahl said, he's never been able to peer into the Internet activity of an open laptop in Starbucks. (See security worries sidebar.)

Then there's the Twin Cities Wireless Users Group (TCWUGS), which wants to bring online services to people for free. Spokesperson Ben Nelson has no problem with DeVaan's efforts.

"Stuart is a businessperson, but it's people like him that allow us to do what we're doing. He's not competing with us anyway," Nelson said. "While Implex.net ensures reliability, high- speed connections and customer service, TCWUGS targets people who have more time than money."

In short, Nelson states, "We do it for the geekery of it, to make public spaces fun."

A wireless Happy Hour

Coffeehouses aren't the only ones beefing up business with wi-fi access. Some Downtown restaurants and bars have adopted the technology early. Old Chicago, 508 1st Ave. N., Rock Bottom Brewery, 800 LaSalle Ave., and Champp's, 100 N. 6th St. offer beer, pizza and wireless access.

Rock Bottom was wireless Internet outfit SurfThing's guinea pig over two years ago. Rock Bottom was the first restaurant to serve wireless, at three busy computer terminals, for free. "It gets used a lot, for chat or playing games. Some people linger for hours, others just check a score or settle an argument," Rock Bottom Manager Chad Kamerud said.

Old Chicago boasts a regular Happy Hour group of businesspeople who pull out their laptops, Manager Dan Brown said. But at Champp's -- where wireless costs $5 for 60 minutes -- one wireless card has been sold in the eight months they've offered the service, Manager Mark Landreville said.

Local hotels are also making wireless a standard amenity. While the engineer at Doubletree, 1101 LaSalle Ave., didn't know what wireless was, the bellmen at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1300 Nicollet Mall, quickly pulled out a packet of instructions the front desk distributes along with a "wireless kit" that guests can purchase for $9.95, enabling unlimited 24-hour access on floors 10-24. The service has been available since January.

Additionally, the Millennium Hotel, 1313 Nicollet Mall, just installed wireless provisions in the lobby and offices. General Manager Robert Rivers said the hotel is launching an advertising campaign with the slogan, "A byte for a bite."

Protecting your data in public

Public wireless hotspots aren't secure networks. "It's the equivalent of leaving your windows and doors wide open," said All-in-One-Laptops' Corey Budahl.

However, there are precautions you can take. Most laptops are now produced with a built-in firewall. A firewall blocks incoming traffic to the Internet on your computer (and allows other information to pass through the connection). While surfing the Web or checking e-mail at your local hotspot, be sure the firewall is turned "on."

If your laptop is an older model, personal firewall software is also available, such as ZoneAlarm (www.zonealarm.com). But the most important safeguard is not to share your hard drive information with anyone on the network (search for "sharing" in your operating system's help file).

If you make purchases over the Internet, be sure that it's "locked," usually indicated by a lock icon in the bottom corner of the screen. Clicking on the icon also reveals to what level the file is encrypted. Encryption makes your data gibberish for all but the computer you want to receive it. This measure should be taken both at home and on a public network.

Corporate users should protect their laptops with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), said Implex.net CEO Stuart DeVaan. A VPN establishes a conversation between just two computers, sealing off any other activity from other computers.

Still, the chances of anyone trying to hack into the files on your computer in a caf/ are slim to none, said wireless hotspot installer Greg Wallgren of SurfThing. "It's just not usually done," Wallgren said.