USI Wireless a subsidiary of US Internet Corp, and the company deploying a metro-wide Wi-Fi network in the Twin Cities area, played a significant role in the response to the Minneapolis bridge collapse disaster by helping with data and voice communications. Even though the Wi-Fi deployment is only partially completed, one of the areas that is up and running happens to be the downtown Minneapolis area near the bridge collapse.Wanting to help, Joe Caldwell, co-founder of US Internet and CEO of USI Wireless, tried to contact city officials within minutes after he heard of the disaster. But the mobile phone networks were overloaded, so he couldn't get through. (This CIO article explains why the overload of mobile phone networks is typical in such a situation.)
At that point, he made the decision to open the active Wi-Fi network to everyone, hoping this would allow people with Wi-Fi phones to use them and free up the congestion. Caldwell said:
"I was trying to get the traffic off of the cell network so that the cell network could be used for first responders. "
Within 45 minutes, the network was completely open--no small feat considering USI Wireless back-end servers had to be reconfigured to ignore the company's payment application. Minneapolis is a major anchor of the Wi-Fi network and so is allocated a significant amount of dedicated bandwidth, a fact that also proved to be important to the rescue operation. Lynn Willenbring, the Minneapolis City CIO, immediately realized the potential of having this available. She said:
"Thank goodness we had it in and that piece of the network was already up and operational. We could not have been as effective if it were not for that."
Willenbring also mentioned that having the network to support emergency workers in disaster situations was one of the selling points used to justify the Wi-Fi network in the first place. She said:
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.
According to Caldwell:
"The use of municipal Wi-Fi in emergencies has been talked about for years in scenario white-board planning, 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."
For more information on the role of Wi-Fi in the rescue operations, see this PC World article.
On a personal note, as a resident of the Twin Cities, I would like to offer my heart-felt sympathy to all of the families affected by this. As a former volunteer firefighter, I wanted to mention how proud I am of the first responders and the civilians that helped others in need. Finally as a network field engineer, I have a better understanding, and am very humbled about, what it must have been like in New York and New Orleans to restore the IT infrastructure.
Michael Kassner is currently a systems manager for an international company. Together with his son, he runs MKassner Net, a small IT publication consultancy.