According to a story last Saturday in PC World Online:
“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.”
Fortunately some of the network which had been completed was near the site of the bridge collapse. WiFi networks, by their nature, are very flexible. This one hadn’t been designed for this emergency, obviously, but part of the reason that Minneapolis became the anchor tenant of this system was to enhance the delivery of emergency services.
Not only the physical network but also its owners were fast and flexible in dealing with the emergency. Also from PC World:
“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.”
Obviously anyone with a WiFi-enabled device of any kind including computers which almost all have WiFi now was able to communicate once the network was opened up. That gave emergency workers and volunteers instant communication even when the cellphone network was overloaded.
Contrast the behavior of US Internet with that of BellSouth who, after Katrina, couldn’t be convinced to give free voicemail to their customers whose landline phones were underwater.
Those of us who lived any amount of time in the telco world appreciate the irony in this quote from the same article about the “difficulty” of opening the WiFi network up to free use: “Doing so was not easy because back-end systems were configured for payment, he [Caldwell] said. As a result, it took about 45 minutes [emphasis added] to open the network to all users for free.”
It is possible that BellSouth would have taken months to configure their system for free voicemail even had they wanted to. We never could make the AT&T billing software capable of charging existing phone customers for AT&T WorldNet – had to make it a credit card only service.
But back to WiFi and the Internet. They work well in emergencies BECAUSE they are not very well-controlled systems. They aren’t designed with specific applications in mind so have the flexibility to be repurposed (or, more accurately, to repurpose themselves) quickly for new demands.
The Internet held up better than the phone network on 9/11 and in many natural disasters. New Orleans WiFi network was a bright spot after Katrina. WiFi helped Minneapolis. It’s very important to understand this as we prepare to spend billions of dollars on special purpose public safety networks which look a lot like the old phone and cellular networks and are just as likely NOT to serve as well in an emergency as an open network.