Parks explore giving city free wireless Internet

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August 11, 2003 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Minneapolis could provide wireless Internet access to every business and resident by locating special equipment on park property around the city, said Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner John Erwin.

"As a consumer, it means that anyone in their backyard could open up a portable computer and be connected to the Internet through their local recreation center," Erwin said.

The idea is in its infancy, and a host of questions have yet to be answered. But Erwin passed a resolution at the Aug. 13 Park Board meeting to at least explore the possibility.

"I came up with the idea because I purchased a new portable computer and it came wireless-ready," Erwin said. "Since Minneapolis has a network of recreation centers unlike any other city, it allows us to reach the entire city with existing technology."

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (D-Minneapolis) also floated a similar idea on the Minneapolis Issue List, an e-mail discussion group, he said.

The key piece of technology is called a router, the object that would sit on the roof. It is wired directly to the Internet and serves as a transmitting and receiving antennae, allowing remote computer access. Erwin said he recently saw a $700 router advertised in a computer magazine that had an advertised range of 3.5 kilometers (about 2 miles).

Paris is experimenting with citywide wireless Internet access. Two technology companies have partnered with the agency that runs the Paris subway, the Detroit Free Press reported May 23. In a test run, they erected a dozen antennas outside metro stations this spring, allowing people nearby to go online if they had the right equipment (called Wi-Fi, for wireless fidelity).

Verizon Corp. announced plans in May to install wireless access points throughout New York City for its Internet subscribers, using the wiring from its pay phone network, the Free Press said.

Most homes in Minneapolis are located within six blocks of a park, the Park Board said. Recreation centers near Downtown include Elliott Park, 1000 E. 14th St. and Loring Park, 1382 Willow St. Nicollet Island does not have a recreation center but it does have a pavilion. The new Park Board headquarters is located just northwest of Downtown at 2117 W. River Rd.

Erwin said he has met with Assistant Superintendent of Finance Don Siggelkow, Larry Brandts, head of technology for the park system and a consultant to discuss creating a citywide wireless network. He is also interested in collaborations with the Minneapolis Public Schools, which could add more potential buildings -- and even locate a router on City Hall.

Outstanding questions include the capital and operating costs of the system, whether the existing technology can deliver as promised, what kind of bandwidth the system would need to operate, how many people would be interested in using it and what, if any, conflicts it would create with for profit DSL businesses.

Siggelkow said another issue up for discussion is whether the Park Board would charge for the service and use it to generate revenue or offer it free, paid by the general fund dollars.

"Our consultant feels if there was a big profit in it, you would see a lot of businesses jumping in," he said.

Brandts said the next steps included a feasibility study and possibly testing a prototype.