Call and Response

After bridge collapse, Minneapolis' fledgling Wi-Fi network opened lines of communication

TAKING COMMAND: Representatives from city departments convene in Minneapolis' Emergency Command Center after the Aug. 1 collapse of the 35W bridge.

Photo Courtesy City of Minneapolis

'We could give [rescue workers a GIS] map and say, 'This is where you need to go.' ' ' Lynn Willenbring, Minneapolis

Minneapolis' municipal Wi-Fi network is still in the early months of deployment, but it passed a severe first test with flying colors.

A half-hour after the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis this month, cellular networks in the Twin City area went dead.

It wasn't calls to 911 or any particular carrier that jammed the system. 'Everyone got on their cell phone,' said Lynn Willenbring, Minneapolis' chief information officer. 'My family was calling too, checking to see if I was OK.'

Joe Caldwell, co-founder of US Internet, the vendor for the city's wireless network, tried to call city offices on his cell phone to offer help, but he couldn't get through. So Caldwell decided to open the city's municipal Wi-Fi network for 12 hours and alerted local TV and radio stations that the service would be free. The usual monthly cost for residential subscribers is $19.95.

People with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or other devices could send instant messages, video, photos or e-mail. The lucky few who had Wi-Fi-enabled phones could make voice calls via the network.

Traffic on the municipal Wi-Fi network spiked from 1,000 users to 6,000. Caldwell then decided to extend the free service to a total of 48 hours after the bridge collapse. US Internet added extra access points to accommodate the increased demand.

The municipal Wi-Fi gave rescuers access to the city's geographic information system, which uses ESRI tools, Willenbring said. That access was crucial in getting maps to the command center set up along the Mississippi River banks.

Rescue workers rushed in from surrounding communities to offer aid. But because they weren't familiar with the area, it was important for them to be able to reference the city's GIS, Willenbring said. 'That was tremendously beneficial, that we could give them a map and say, 'This is where you need to go.' '

The GIS helped workers identify where to put the debris. It also helped them set up staging areas for families and the media. President and Mrs. Bush visited the area Aug. 4, so city employees had to identify secure areas and facilities for the Secret Service.

City staff also had to notify the public of alternate routes around the collapsed bridge and perimeter. 'We published an online mapping service so they could see how to get in and out of Minneapolis without the 35W bridge,' Willenbring said.

This was the city's first test of its fledgling municipal Wi-Fi system since signing the contract with US Internet about a year ago. When the bridge collapsed Aug. 1, the first of six planned phases of the network had been completed, and Phase 2 was being fine-tuned, Willenbring said.

Before putting out the request for proposals, Willenbring said, city officials studied other cities' municipal Wi-Fi networks. 'We looked at Philadelphia, and we realized we did not want to own the network. That wasn't a core competency of the city.'

Wish list

Minneapolis officials knew what they did want: border-to-border coverage of the city, emergency response communications and facility inspection.

The city would be the anchor tenant, guaranteeing US Internet at least a minimum number of subscribers.

In some respects, the network has exceeded expectations, Willenbring said. 'A reporter testing a laptop on a pedestrian street was able to watch a movie and get about 10M downloaded.'

But municipal Wi-Fi networks in other cities aren't playing out as the hoped-for win-win way to create wireless access for everyone.

Some cities 'overhyped the capabilities and the possibility of providing these networks for free,' said Craig Settles, the president of consulting firm and author of 'Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.'

Some city networks had no viable business model.

Pig in a poke

'Too often, they went for the okie doke,' Settles said. 'That's when you're buying a pig in a poke, as my grandparents would say.'

As networks built without proper planning come online, users are finding out that they don't have instant access everywhere, especially not indoors, Settles said.

Sometimes excessive foliage can interfere with Wi-Fi access, prompting the question of whether cities should cut down trees to make way for Wi-Fi.
Settles cites Providence, R.I., as having a particularly laudable municipal Wi-Fi business model.

Providence officials focused on two needs to be served by the Wi-Fi network: public safety and building inspections. Once the network could handle those two needs, the city would look at possibly opening it to other constituents.

'They were very quiet about it,' Settles said. 'They didn't make a grand proclamation at the beginning.'

Settles also said he thinks Philadelphia's municipal Wi-Fi network, Wireless Philadelphia, is being unfairly slammed by critics. The goal of Wireless Philadelphia was to boost economic development, he said. 'It was to provide technology to the underserved sector of the population. It was never going to be free, though.'

Economic development was the first measure of Wireless Philadelphia's success, not the number of people walking around Philadelphia using their laptops. 'Just because you didn't see average citizens buying accounts on Wireless Philadelphia, people would say the project was in trouble,' Settles said. 'That wasn't the case.'

Every municipal network is going to have glitches that will have to be tweaked, Settles said. It might need more access points or additional technology to get good indoor coverage. 'I suggest to cities that they make their announcement date 60 days after they turn the network on,' allowing time to work the bugs out in advance.

Minneapolis had done its due diligence on the front end and worked past most of these issues early on, Settles said. When disaster struck, the network was ready.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.


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