City may join Park Board to provide wireless Internet access Downtown

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October 27, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Collective action could get businesses and residents lower-cost service

The city of Minneapolis hopes to profit by providing wireless Internet access Downtown, and is interested in providing citywide connections for residents and businesses with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

City Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) introduced a resolution directing the City Coordinator to work with the Park Board on the project. It would offer Downtown rooftop space for antennae, called routers, which allow people with wireless-enabled computers to connect with the Internet, similar to a cell phone hookup.

"Users could pay a fee to access the service, much in the same way the city gets a small fee from everybody who has access to Time Warner Cable," Schiff said.

Park Board Commissioner John Erwin first floated the idea in August. The idea: set up a citywide system of routers. Most Minneapolis homes are within six blocks of a park, Erwin said. The Park Board could install routers on roofs of park recreation centers or other park buildings.

"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 one blind spot: the Downtown core, where the Park Board has no buildings.

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. N.

The city, however, has Downtown property, including City Hall.

"Having the city of Minneapolis enter [a wireless partnership] means the possibility of covering Downtown," Schiff said. "Suddenly, you open up enormous potential for benefits to Downtown businesses."

Since the Park Board gave the OK to move ahead with the project, Erwin said he has had inquiries from six companies and had discussions with three, including Nortel. He called the talks "very promising."

Those private discussions have explored different profit-sharing arrangements, Erwin said, and will soon become public. He expected a Request for Proposals would be issued by Jan. 1. If all goes well, the provider would begin installing equipment in the spring, and the system would become operational in late spring/early summer.

"Likely, we would ask a company to pay for all the infrastructure and for the city and Park Board to receive a percentage of profits," Erwin said. "Part of the issue is that since budgets are so tight right now, we can't, as a city or Park Board, pay for the infrastructure costs."

Nortel or some other company would provide the equipment, while a service provider, such as Sprint, would manage the system.

Last summer, park officials said one issue up for discussion is whether the Park Board would charge for the service or offer it free, paid by the general fund dollars. Erwin said a service charge would be levied.

"We are going into this with the hope that it would be significantly less than any DSL service that is out there," he said. "It would be another option on the phone bill."

The City Council referred the issue to the Zoning and Planning and Ways and Means committees. Initial discussions between the city and Park Board staff began the week of Oct. 20.