Minneapolis continues to shine through as perhaps the only big city Wi-Fi project that hasn't gone off the rails: The independent firm operating the network, US Internet, tells the Star Tribune that it's on track to what should be characterized as positive cash flow based on their description by spring. They have 5,000 customers now for their network which covers 30 percent of the city. But more impressively, 7,000 people have registered for the service when it becomes available. Their magic number for cash flow is 10,000 subscribers.
These goals are in line with signups seen elsewhere in smaller networks that often get worse reviews. The current 5,000 subscribers would represent less than 5 percent of the population (roughly) in the area covered. With 100 percent city coverage, 10,000 subscribers is just 2.6 percent of the nearly 400,000 population (2000 census). The network is now expected to be built out to its full extent by around February. (Update: To clarify, based on a comment emailed to me, that's 5,000 subscribers in 30 percent of the city, thus nearly 5 percent of that subset of population currently covered, not 5 percent of the 400,000 people.)
That's a far cry from the 15 to 35 percent uptake that some providers were predicting or requiring, although that was often in cities with much less broadband connectivity than Minneapolis's incumbents offer its residents. If US Internet can really hit a sustainable--not profitable, but sustainable--point with that few subscribers, they should be in a good position moving forward. The company also has city contracts, which is nearly unique in the metro-scale market, despite the current focus on obtaining "anchor tenancy" for new networks.
Reports indicate that after some tweaking a few months ago, the service performs quite well. Novarum has tested the network and hasn't released details yet, but says its impressions are favorable.
So what did US Internet do in Minneapolis that EarthLink and others failed to do elsewhere? Apparently, they planned the network with greater density, so that even while costs went up, they didn't double or triple. They secured a contract for services from the city. They obtained an advanced payment against services from the city. They responded quickly in an emergency--the bridge collapsed--earning enormous goodwill, while showing the flexibility of their system.
The only other comparable project is Portland, Ore., in terms of scale; that network reportedly has much more usage than any other metro network, mostly because it's an ad-supported, free service. However, the operator MetroFi and the City of Portland revealed weeks ago that the company wouldn't extend the network without an anchor tenancy commitment (Portland says no) or raising additional capital. MetroFi hasn't discussed revenue relative to expense or cash flow.