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Citywide Wi-Fi network put to test in Minneapolis

Aftermath of Minnesota bridge collapse tests effectiveness of citywide Wi-Fi in an emergency for the first time.

Citywide Wi-Fi got its first true test in a disaster as the city of Minneapolis used its partially built network to help augment rescue and relief efforts after last week's bridge collapse.

While public safety has often been touted as a major reason for cities to build their own Wi-Fi networks, until the tragedy in Minneapolis last week, such a network had never been truly tested.

"Public safety is always part of the request for proposals for these networks," said Joe Caldwell, CEO of USI Wireless, the company building and providing Wi-Fi service in Minneapolis. "So we had already been talking about what the network could do in theory. Then this happened, and the network did exactly what it was supposed to do. And it did it amazingly well."

Hundreds of cities throughout the country have become interested in building their own Wi-Fi networks. Often in these scenarios, the city partners with a company in the private sector to build the network and run the service on behalf of the city. And in many instances, the city itself becomes an anchor tenant on the network, using it to connect various public safety groups, such as police and fire departments, as well as city agencies.

But citywide Wi-Fi has not been without controversy. And in some cities, such as San Francisco, projects have stalled. But many experts feel that the disaster in Minneapolis highlights the importance of building these networks.

"Municipal wireless has given people some things to be critical about," said Craig Settles, an independent wireless consultant and author of the book Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless. "But wireless Minneapolis' role in the emergency response to last week's bridge disaster proves the technology's potential to save lives across America."

USI Wireless has been deploying Wi-Fi gear in Minneapolis since April, and by the end of June it had covered about 18 square miles, or a quarter of the city, Caldwell said. Coincidentally, much of the build-out was downtown just south of the Mississippi, where the I-35 bridge collapsed.

Within moments of the bridge's collapse, Caldwell said he was on the phone with James Farstad, a wireless consultant for Minneapolis involved in setting up the Wi-Fi network, to see what he could do to help.

The first thing Caldwell did was open up the subscription-based Wi-Fi service so anyone could use it for free. Because the network had only been built around part of the disaster, Caldwell then ordered additional Wi-Fi radios to be placed in areas surrounding the catastrophe to blanket it with signals, providing an additional 12 megabits per second of capacity to the area around the bridge collapse.

Caldwell hoped that people with Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones would use the wireless network instead of their cell phones to make calls, thus alleviating the flooded cellular network. within 30 minutes of the collapse, Farstad wrote in a blog he posted earlier this week.

That evening, usage on the network jumped from 1,000 registered USI Wireless customers before the disaster struck to 6,000. Exactly how many of those 6,000 users were actually using the Wi-Fi network in lieu of the cell phone network isn't known. It's unlikely that many people were able to use the network for voice communications, given that most cell phones don't have Wi-Fi capability and those that do may not be able use voice over IP clients.

Still, the network was very helpful for local and federal officials, who were most likely accessing the network via PDAs or laptops. Farstad noted in his blog that the Wi-Fi network provided an alternate path for city personnel in the emergency command center to electronically exchange information, such as maps of the area, with personnel working in the field. Specifically, it allowed rescue workers on the mobile command center that was floating in the river to communicate with various city, state and federal agencies during the rescue and salvage operation.

And it provided a network for the community to City of Minneapolis resources, hospital emergency coordination units, State of Minnesota Department of Transportation traffic routing information, Red Cross Blood Bank collection points, and local and national news outlets.

The USI Wireless team also quickly installed three Wi-Fi-enabled cameras that had been purchased by the city for a community policing effort, but hadn't been deployed yet. The cameras were set up along the river banks near the disaster site to provide a live video feed over the network directly to the command center.

"I'm not really sure what the relieve effort would have looked like if this network had not been in place," Caldwell said. "You can't really download these detailed maps easily using an EV-DO card. And you definitely couldn't have the kind of video streaming that is there down there now."

All the equipment and the network will remain on-site so it can be used to enable ongoing monitoring and coordination of the rebuilding effort.