Minneapois Unwired: Updated Community Benefits Status

I recently posted on the status of community benefits included in the City of Minneapolis contract with US Internet (Minneapolis Unwired: Status of Our Community Benefits). Since then, the Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee (DIFAC) has met and the City and US Internet provided further updates and answered some of my questions. (I'm a member of the Committee.)

I want to be clear that our committee is solely involved with the Digital Inclusion Fund and in making grants to nonprofits. We are not a regulatory group in relation to all the community benefits.

Bold/Italic indicates statements (slightly edited) from my previous post. I use US Internet and USIW interchangeably.

USIW is 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.

The payments will be yearly and the contract will be amended to reflect that. The logistics of monthly payments with the City verifying USIW's financials would be a nightmare. (USIW is privately held so financial information is not public.) The donation will be based on net income. There was no profit thus no net income in the past year (their fiscal year ends April 30) mainly because the network did not get built out as quickly as hoped and subscriber counts aren't as great as projected. If all goes well, USIW should have a donation for DIFAC this current year in the third quarter of 2010. (After the close of the fiscal year USIW will have an outside review and then forward financial statements to the City for confirmation.)

USIW is still building out around the lakes ("challenge areas") and expect an influx of subscribers once they are finished. USIW announced at the meeting that they were just finishing implementation in Prospect Park. That area should be "unwired" as of this writing.

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."

There is not yet any free access but the City wants to move forward on this soon. The plan is to convene an ad hoc committee to make recommendations as to best location for the free areas. I'm sure parks and plazas will be in the mix and I would like to see major entertainment areas: Uptown, downtown, parts of Northeast, and maybe around the downtown riverfront. Another site I believe ripe for free Wi-Fi is City Hall itself.

USIW is also supposed to sponsor an annual DIF fundraising event.

USIW is planning a fundraiser. We are hopeful that something will be in place soon.

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."

No report on any activity.

USIW is 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."

No report on any activity.

(end update)

I'm very glad to have the updates on community benefits and I feel we are moving forward (albeit more slowly than some of us might like to see). I think I can speak for all of our committee in saying that we really would have liked to see a contribution from USIW to the fund in time for another round of grants this fall. We do have $100,000 and the plan right now is to keep that money, possibly until fall, 2010, when we expect the next contribution from USIW.

In the meantime, we are working on governance issues for the DIFAC including length of member terms and replacing members who have left. We may be recruiting new members by early 2010. Watch my blog for announcements.

Other items at this meeting included information on the City of Minneapolis application for federal stimulus funds. One project would provide broadband to 41 public housing high rises and the other would involve training users on how to use the Internet. The broadband system would use a rooftop antenna system to connect to the USIW wireless system and then provide wired connections to high rise residents. I'm trying to get more information for a future blog post (like what's the bandwidth and what's the cost to users).

We also discussed the creation of a long-term group or committee to steer the City on technology issues and digital inclusion and to oversee the community benefits. This could be part of the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission or a separate group and possibly even ad hoc and formed as needed with members chosen with expertise to address specific issues.

The next DIFAC meeting will be in early December.

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