Minneapolis Unwired: Status report on our Wi-Fi deployment

Had a chance to chat with Jim Farstad last week. He is the City of Minneapolis’s consultant for the USIW wireless deployment. I know many of you would like to know what’s going on so here is what I found out.

[For new readers: USIW is US Internet Wireless and they are the vendor contracted by the City to build the wireless (Wi-Fi) mesh network. USIW will own the network and provide services to the City plus they are selling access to residents, businesses, etc. The City is USIW’s anchor tenant. The model of building with the City as a tenant seems to be working well for us here in Minneapolis.]

USIW has completed all installations of network equipment (transmitters, antennas, etc.) that they can install at this point. That’s about 2,200 transmitters. They need about 2,300 transmitters but they don’t have the poles to hang them on.

There are several challenge areas. These are around the lakes, along the river, the parkways, and the Lowry Hill area. Why are these areas challenged? There are either no poles in the right place or the poles have a problem. The pole may be decorative and not strong enough to support the radio. Or it may be a light pole with an electrical connection centrally controlled and manually shut off each morning. These poles usually have inaccessible buried cabling too. New pole installs are changing to conduit for better access. Or there is a transformer on the pole and mounting the radio would interfere with maintenance.

So why not hang some of these on buildings? USIW pays rent for hanging on the poles; they could certainly pay rent to a building owner. The problem is what if the building changes hands and the next owner decides to end the contract and wants to remove the radio. Or what if the building burns down? The state of the network is such that USIW might have to move several radios in these instances and reconfigure the network. They don’t want to risk this.

(Interesting Note: There are almost 32,000 lights in Minneapolis.)

Subscribers. As of this week, there are more than 9,400 subscribers. The figure is higher than projected which is a good thing. Complaints seem to hover around 125 to 150 open tickets but the number isn’t increasing so as more subscribers join, the percent of complaints is going down. It also means that it’s likely that many of the complaints have to do with initial setup and configuration.

According to Farstad, USIW will refund your money if you’re not happy. I will assume that this might be minus any decent service you did receive but I don’t know the details.

Testing. The City is testing connectivity and bandwidth and so far it looks good (outside of challenge areas, of course). Adding a hi-performance antenna on your computer if you are roaming helps. (USIW sells them for $159.95.)

The City is also testing applications of various types. Monitoring water flow in some of their systems is now done with cell service to the tune of $30 to $40 per month. Using Wi-Fi, they can reduce costs to $1/month, realizing significant savings. I believe home water meters which currently use phone-line modems, will also eventually be replaced by Wi-Fi.

The deployment is going well and everyone is optimistic that the challenge areas will be unchallenged eventually. USIW did have to spend at least an extra $1 million more than planned to get this done but they are confident that the business case will still work especially with the higher-than-expected subscription rate.

Comments and questions are welcome. Ideally you will do this publically below but email me if you must and I will respond.

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