Minneapolis Unwired: Status of Our Community Benefits

[I have been on the Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee since the beginning. The Committee disburses the money in the Digital Inclusion Fund via an RFP system to nonprofits.]

In drafting the contract in 2006 for the deployment of the municipal Wi-Fi network, the City of Minneapolis negotiated a number of community benefits with??US Internet (now US Internet Wireless or USIW). This "community benefits agreement" (CBA) is one of the first nationally between a city and private vendor and has become somewhat famous in the policy world.

Minneapolis is now three years into the contract with USIW. This would seem a good time to evaluate the benefits and whether Minneapolis is getting its "moneys worth," so to speak.

I dug out the contract so I could see the original language. Community Benefit portion starts on page 6 with payment and pricing information on page C-1. The DIF group has a meeting Wednesday so if you have any feedback, please send it along and I'll do my best to bring it to the meeting.

You will note references in the contract to the Digital Inclusion Task Force (DITF). The DITF "retired" after forming the Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee (DIFAC) of which I am a member. That's the "governing" body now monitoring portions of the CBA. (What we exactly are monitoring is up to interpretation.)

USIW was required to fund the DIF with an initial $500,000. That money is paid and accounted for. The DIFAC has given out $400,000 of it over the last two years. We have about $100,000 on account.??

USIW is further required to provide monthly payments of??five percent (5%) of??their "Pre-tax Income from the operation of the Network within the??City." DIFAC has not seen any of that money yet and I haven't heard when payments are supposed to begin. USIW does have a representative on DIFAC and we are supposed to learn more this week. According to early estimates by USIW and listed in Attachment C of the contract, USIW should be giving the DIF $467,207 in "Year 3." That would be 2009 if we are counting from the year the contract was signed. (By Year 10, the DIF is supposed to receive $1749,387.)

There is other revenue sharing around the Walled Garden/Community Portal advertising but as far as I can tell, there is no advertising yet. The DIF will also share in revenues from any local municipality Wi-Fi deployments but that hasn't happened yet either (and wouldn't that municipality want its own CBA and share of revenues?).??

Walled Garden

USIW is required by contract to build a "walled garden" portal page with free access to whoever can get the signal and access to some City and neighborhood/community sites. That's in place. I don't know how much engagement the City or USIW has with individual communities but you can go to the portal site free and access the City of Minneapolis web site free. That's cool. The contract also specifies content management systems for communities. I'm not sure if that's in place yet.??Link to Community Portal.

Free Accounts

The City negotiated 100 free accounts for community technology centers (CTC) in the contract. Applications were sent out this year and 51 groups replied and should have free accounts soon. The City will follow-up with another round of application requests in case some groups missed the first round. If you know of a nonprofit that has public access to computers or tech literacy classes, you should have them contact the City. (You can download the application here.) Organizations will also receive monthly Wi-Fi subscription vouchers for volunteers.??

Missing Pieces

The biggest missing piece of course, is the monthly payments to the DIF. I am hopeful that this will be addressed this week.??

There are a couple of other items that are missing (or that I'm not aware of). ??

Free 1MB access

USIW "will offer free 1 megabit broadband Internet access service in public locations (Parks, Plazas) defined by City up to a maximum of five percent (5%) of the geographic area throughout the City." I don't know of any free access. The City press release for the agency free wireless makes it sound like this is in place. It's possible it is. It would certainly seem a good marketing move on the part of USIW.??I'll update this after our meeting.

Fundraising

USIW is supposed to be seeking "additional contributions and/or matching funds from community businesses, foundations and charities to increase the amount available in the DIF." This is really important as the volunteer DIFAC doesn't really have the time to do serious fundraising.??

USIW is also supposed to sponsor an annual DIF fundraising event. Unless I wasn't invited, as of today, there has been no event.??

They are also supposed to conduct community meetings twice per year around the City "to ensure continued encouragement and support for the inclusion into the digital age of the maximum number of citizens, households and businesses in the City." I don't think these have taken place yet either.??

We are three years in on the contract. I think we need to address where all the benefits are and USIW should let us know when to expect them. Maybe the City is aware of the issues and has a satisfactory response from USIW. Since I'm a member of DIFAC, you'd think I'd know that but sometimes big cities move in mysterious ways.??

I'd love feedback on this especially before the Wednesday meeting.

??

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