Public/private partnerships between municipalities and commercial providers to deliver broadband connectivity can work, something the city of Minneapolis hopes to demonstrate over the next year once it completes its citywide 802.11 network.

USI Wireless operates the network on the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band and the 4.9 GHz public safety band, the mobile component of which will be finished this spring. Meanwhile, the city already has realized significant value from the network, which was used extensively to aid response to the collapse of the I-35W bridge on Aug. 1, 2007.

By using the components of the network already deployed, officials were able to monitor the situation at the scene from an emergency operations center through the use of real-time video delivered over the network, said James Farstad, president of the rClient consulting firm and program manager for the wireless initiative in Minneapolis. These images not only helped the rescue mission from a tactical standpoint, they also affected the overall effort in other ways after being sent to state and local officials, he said.

“We're convinced it helped us get funding for the recovery effort,” Farstad said.

Farstad described the response to the bridge collapse as “amazing,” with needed cooperation being provided on all fronts. Helping matters was the broadband network, which delivered 10 Mb/s bandwidth over gear developed by BelAir Networks.

Lynn Willenbring, chief information officer for Minneapolis, said the city already has realized significant legal savings from the deployment of its Safe City Camera initiative, which provides video surveillance in targeted areas of the city. The remote-controlled, fixed cameras not only deter crime in an area, they produce video that can make it much easier to prosecute cases, which saves valuable time and resources associated with court operations, she said.

“That saves court costs, because when you arrest the perpetrator and show them the imagery and say, ‘Do you still want to go to court on this one? Here, we show you knocking this woman down and grabbing her purse,’ suddenly they plead guilty,” Willenbring said. “We don't have to go to court, and our prosecution rate has gone up.”

Potentially even more money will be saved when the network is used to transmit video from vehicular cameras — evidence that can help stem lawsuits alleging police misconduct, Willenbring said.

Farstad said the network was designed to handle public safety data needs such as mobility — “without mobility, the technology is not going to be useful in a public safety environment” — but Minneapolis expects to benefit from applications running over the network that extend far beyond first responders.

“In many cases, a single-use network won't fly economically,” Farstad said. “The economic realities of a single-purpose network would be too expensive.”

Among other things, the city plans to let inspectors and other workers deliver field reports over the network, saving the time needed to deliver the report back to the office and the cost of data-entry personnel to input the reports.

Some field workers already are using mobile data applications over Sprint's EV-DO network, but the city plans for these functions to be moved to the city wireless network, Willenbring said. Through its agreement with USI Wireless, the city will pay $12 per month for each 1-3 Mb/s connection — a fraction of the cost it pays for similar data rates from other commercial carriers, Farstad said.

When the Minneapolis deployment is completed, the network will cover 95% of the city's 59 square miles, said Stephen Rayment, CTO and co-founder of BelAir Networks.

“Minneapolis is our flagship deployment,” Rayment said. “It's the largest 4.9 GHz radio footprint in the U.S.”

Willenbring said Minneapolis plans to deploy Wi-Fi parking meters that will let users pay with credit cards — a transaction performed using the broadband wireless network — and inform them of special rules they might not have realized. In addition, Farstad said Minneapolis is contemplating a host of low-bandwidth applications using sensor technologies that would let the city leverage $1 per month connections.

“There are a lot of things that didn't make sense at $50 per month that make sense at $1 per month,” Farstad said.

And more applications are likely to be developed in the future, Rayment said.

“I think we're just beginning to scratch the surface of the efficiencies that can be gained,” he said. “It's just the tip of the iceberg.”