Last month, Minnesota-based ISP US Internet announced that it had been chosen by the city of Minneapolis to provide citywide Wi-Fi. To win the contract for the 60-square-mile broadband wireless network, the ten-year old company with no previous municipal Wi-Fi experience beat out some heavy hitters, including EarthLink.
The victory, says Joe Caldwell, US Internet co-founder and CEO, came down to the fact that US Internet gave the city what it wanted.
“We really read the RFP,” says Caldwell. “We didn’t come in with any preconceived notions of what we wanted the city to have. A big part of the city’s need was public safety, another was bridging the digital divide, another was a network that could support voice and video. They wanted a network that could support consumers and businesses. They wanted so many different things. We brought them the combination of the best solutions.”
Despite being something of a new kid on the block in this particular arena, Caldwell says he and his team never doubted they would emerge victorious. “We did beat out some stiff competition, but I thought we were always the favorite going in,” he says. “When we were picked as a finalist, I thought we were way ahead of [EarthLink]. In our mind, what they brought to the table was not what the city asked for in the RFP.”
The Minneapolis deployment is just the beginning of the roll-out.
“We have a one square mile area up and running right now that was used in the ‘bake-off’ between us and EarthLink this summer,” says Caldwell. “We are only offering 250 accounts in that one square mile, but in one day, we sold all 250 accounts.”
So far, Caldwell says the feedback from early users has been positive. However, not inclined to rest on its laurels, the company has partnered with Atlanta-based Charys and is already pursuing contracts in other major metropolitan areas, including Boston and Atlanta. One news report prematurely indicated that the Atlanta contract had been won in early November, but Caldwell is quick to point out that it’s too soon to announce any new victories.
“I don’t know how that got interpreted,” says Caldwell. “We haven’t landed contracts. In Boston, they are putting in two one square mile pilot areas, and we are putting in one of those. Then we’ll have a bake-off, like here. Then someone will get awarded the contract. In Atlanta, we just had our second big meeting. It’s down to two of us. It’s us and EarthLink. We have a lot of deals in play right now, but the only thing we’ve won is Minneapolis.”
Caldwell sees municipal Wi-Fi as an area of reliable growth, and he says his company will continue to aggressively seek ways to expand its presence in that market. “As our society becomes more and more mobile, being able to have wireless broadband will be essential, and Wi-Fi is the best delivery method,” he says. “There’s so many things you can do with Wi-Fi. In Taipei, they have Wi-Fi child-finding devices. In Minneapolis, we’re delivering security cameras over Wi-Fi. We can deliver that over the mesh network. That’s what we’re excited about. It’s the next big thing when it comes to Internet.”
The company, which currently employs about 100 people, takes an old-fashioned approach to its high-tech business, an approach that helped the company weather the stormy years of the dot-com bubble’s burst.
“In the beginning , there were just three of us in the basement of a house running US Robotics modems — now we have offices in Singapore,” says Caldwell. “The big thing we did right was we didn’t take on any debt. We didn’t have a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. Every penny that this made went back into growing it. A lot of companies built these 100,000 square foot data centers. No one gave us the money to do anything that stupid, so we didn’t. We always kept our eye on the bottom line, because it’s always been our bottom line, not some VC’s [venture capitalist’s] bottom line. Our agenda has been, take care of the customer, and the rest will take care of itself, and that’s what we found to be successful.”
US Internet has come a long way from its days as the dream of three guys in a basement in Minnesota, and it expects to go much, much further. “We want to be a world leader,” says Caldwell. “We didn’t get into this just to do Minneapolis. Back in 1995, we had about $1.25 to our name. We had about enough to cover the apartment building in which we started. But we named our company ‘US Internet.’ We’re not lacking vision here. When we do Minneapolis right, we’re going to have a calling card to go in and do these other cities.”
Naomi Graychase is a freelance writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts. For more than a decade she has covered consumer electronics and personal and business computing. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, CNet, and SmartComputing, among many others.