New Orleans' Wi-Fi network now a lifeline

After Katrina, the only communication system still working was a wireless mesh network

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the only communication system that hadn't broken down was the wireless mesh network deployed in the downtown area to support surveillance cameras credited with reducing the city's prestorm violent-crime rate.

Today it still performs police duties, but as the lone public communications system left in the city, it also carries VoIP traffic that is the lifeline for many city businesses, said the city's CIO, Greg Meffert.

The storm wiped out wireline phone service and cellular networks, and those that it didn't destroy outright couldn't be kept up because the city couldn't get fuel to the backup generators needed to keep the networks running, Meffert told an audience at a session during Spring VON 2006 this week.

"We still have a third to a half of the city blocked out for telecom and power," Meffert said.

Now the wireless mesh system made by Tropos supports a radio network for computer equipment in police cars as well as a free municipal Wi-Fi service. The city never tested the network for its current use, but it had no other choice, the CIO said.

"It's easy to try something new when you don't have to deal with the old network because it's in the lake," he said.

The mesh creates a Wi-Fi cloud over the downtown business district and the French Quarter, with the bandwidth segmented for public safety and public Wi-Fi.

"VoIP over Wi-Fi was the only chance we had for talking because it is point-to-point and doesn't rely on sequenced switches like the ones that failed," Meffert said.

He said the situation is likely to continue indefinitely because the traditional wireline phone companies say they will not rebuild in the city for a long time. "We're letting this Wi-Fi technology become indigenous infrastructure to help bring the city back," Meffert said.

He said businesses have no alternatives, so law firms are actually doing business over VoIP out of coffee shops, "as long as it's in the cloud."

Four months ago, the city population was 50,000, and now it's 250,000. "The wireless network is part of what's making them able to come back," he said.

This story, "New Orleans' Wi-Fi network now a lifeline" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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