New Wi-Fi network proves critical in Minneapolis bridge disaster

Only partially completed, it was working in the downtown area near the bridge

A new Wi-Fi network in Minneapolis -- only partially completed and just two months old -- is nonetheless giving the city critical help in responding to this week's collapse of the I-35W bridge. The network helped the city with communications, moving large mapping files to the recovery site, and is supporting wireless cameras that are being installed to help with recovery operations.

The city is deploying the Wi-Fi network via a contract with US Internet Corp. throughout its 60 square miles. While only part of it is now up and running, one of those areas is in the downtown area near the scene of the bridge collapse Wednesday evening.

"Thank goodness we had it in and that this piece of the network was already up and operational," said Minneapolis City CIO Lynn Willenbring. "We could not have been as effective if it were not for that."

Willenbring was at a soccer game when she learned of the disaster. The IT department immediately went to work to provide basic support and desk-side services for the city's emergency operations command center. The city's GIS staff also worked through the night to prepare maps, both for public use and internally to assist with traffic and recovery efforts, she said.

One of things that quickly became important was wireless access. Minneapolis is the anchor tenant of the Wi-Fi system and has a certain portion reserved for its use. The network is open to subscribers who pay a monthly flat fee and there were 1,000 subscribers on the system the day of the collapse.

One of the arguments for building such networks is help in an emergency, and Willenbring said that's been the case in Minneapolis.

On the first night of the disaster, US Internet opened up the network so anyone could use it for free; the number of concurrent users quickly grew to 6,000, said Willenbring.

"We have been able to get information to the command center readily and we are talking heavy files, GIS-based mapping ... that are just critical," said Willenbring. The Wi-Fi network is also now supporting webcams.

Joe Caldwell, the co-founder of Minneapolis-based US Internet and CEO of USI Wireless, the subsidiary providing the Wi-Fi service, said he immediately called the city to see what officials needed within 10 minutes of seeing reports of the disaster on the news. But Caldwell said he couldn't get through on his cell phone, prompting the company to open the Wi-Fi network to anyone, thus allowing people with Wi-Fi-enabled telephones to make a voice call.

Doing so was not easy because back-end systems were configured for payment, he said. As a result, it took about 45 minutes to open the network to all users for free. It remained open for about 24 hours.

"I was trying to get the traffic off the cell network so the cell network could be used for first responders," said Caldwell. First responders often rely on cell phones, particularly if they are cross-jurisdictional, he said.

The Wi-Fi network is operational in about a quarter of the city and covered the northern part of the collapsed bridge. The next day, the company worked to expand coverage to include the entire bridge area, said Caldwell.

The use of municipal Wi-Fi networks in emergencies has been talked about for years in scenario white-board planning, he said, but "it has never really been put into play. ... What we found out is that it is definitely viable and definitely makes a huge difference."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon