April 29, 2007 By Mike Hughlett
Esme Vos, Muniwireless founder: Chaska's wireless efforts have been a success.
Nestled in the bucolic Minnesota River valley, Chaska, Minn. is ground zero for a great Internet experiment. And Ben Palmby is a prime test subject. Palmby signed up for his hometown's high-speed wireless Web service when it was launched two years ago. It was cheap: less than half the cost of high-speed Internet through cable TV or a phone line. But then, the quality of Chaska's service sometimes seemed only half as good. "For the price, you get your money's worth," said Palmby.
Chaska is one of the first U.S. cities to offer almost all of its residents Wi-Fi. Users plug a city-supplied Wi-Fi receiver into their computers, allowing them to receive Web service through radio signals, thus untethering their machines from telephone cables and making them theoretically mobile.
Wi-Fi systems have been rolled out in close to 60 U.S. cities and counties, according to muniwireless.com, and are being planned in over 120 more.
Many of those cities are going Wi-Fi for the same reason as Chaska, and they can all learn some lessons from this town of 17,449 at the 2000 census.
Chaska, just like big-city brethren Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, pitched Wi-Fi as a way to bring high-speed wireless to citizens who otherwise might not be able to afford it -- or might not want to afford it at around $40 per month.
Chaska's wireless effort has been a success, said Esme Vos, who runs muniwireless.com, a Web site that tracks municipal Wi-Fi. "It's considered a very good network."
But Chaska's network has had its share of woes -- slow speeds, dead connections -- sparking customer angst along the way.
"It took about a year and a half before we felt we really had a good handle on the network," said Bradley Mayer, Chaska's former tech manager whose success there helped land him a job at EarthLink, an Atlanta-based firm that builds municipal Wi-Fi networks.
There's an art to setting up a wireless system, ensuring that radio signals do what they're supposed to do and provide quality Web service.
In Chaska, "There was a lot of pre-conceived notions that you could just blast (Wi-Fi signals) through walls and trees and everything," Mayer said.
Instead, Mayer made some unpleasant discoveries. Like the fact that wet, leafy trees absorb radio signals, hampering Wi-Fi coverage. And this one: Wi-Fi signals don't pass through stucco like they did wooden walls, another negative for coverage.
Chaska had to devise ways to remedy problems like that. "You can't change the laws of physics, but you can bend them," Mayer said.
Bigger cities will face even bigger challenges than Chaska, if only because of their size.
"It's an order of magnitude more complex," said Ellen Kirk, marketing vice president at Tropos Networks, a leading Wi-Fi equipment maker. Tropos built Chaska's system.
"It's much easier to implement Wi-Fi technology in a smaller site," said Roberta Wiggins, a wireless analyst at Yankee Group, a tech research firm. "It hasn't yet been proven in a really large area."
Chaska, located 27 miles southwest of Minneapolis, covers about 15 square miles. The city was founded about 150 years ago, and still sports many handsome, old buildings fashioned from the cream-colored brick for which the area is known.
Wealthy suburbs have grown up around Chaska. But Chaska itself has an income profile more in tune with the Twin Cities norm: It's home to both trailer parks and ritzy homes abutting Hazeltine National Golf Course, one of the nation's finer golf links.
The idea for a more affordable broadband alternative -- one priced less than $20 per month -- started with Mayer. He