Municipal Wi-Fi Rationale Shifting

Carl Weinschenk

It is truly unfortunate that the world got another chance on August 1 to see how wireless can help in an emergency. This Wi-Fi Planet story describes how the subsidiary of U.S. Internet that is working on Wireless Minneapolis pitched in when a bridge spanning the Mississippi collapsed.


As the tragedy unfolded, the subsidiary disabled the network's paid log-in process, thus making connectivity freely available. Within hours, the piece says, abut six times the normal 1,000 paid users were on the system.


The story, paraphrasing Chicago Tribune reports, described a confused situation in which workers used their own cell phones as backup for the city's universal radio system. This led officials to ask non-emergency residents to reduce cell use. The Wireless Minneapolis move provided another way for stunned citizens to reach loved ones. The story also says that, fortunately, an early stage of the Wireless Minneapolis buildout covered the bridge area, though it isn't clear if both sides of the river are served.


The story shows corporate America at its best. The company did all it could to help out in a crisis. The longer-term impact of Wireless Minneapolis' involvement is the possibility of influencing the debate over whether municipal wireless projects are better positioned as primarily infrastructure to aid government and business or consumers and tourists.


Of course, an existing network -- no matter who it primarily serves on a normal day -- can be put to good use in an emergency. We're not too sure how great the technical differences are between the two approaches. The point is that the distinction can be vital during the critical funding phase.


The recent tragedy shows that municipal wireless projects can play a vital role during a crisis. It's been repeatedly proven that existing networks simply aren't sufficient in a real emergency. Most aren't designed to be simultaneously used by a tremendously high percentage of subscribers. In most cases, user loads that theoretically are possible are not reached. Common sense suggests, therefore, that throwing in a Wi-Fi network is a good idea.


The desire to use Wi-Fi for public safety is resonating. Last month, the Town of Brookline, Mass., launched a comprehensive wireless network that, according to vendor Strix Networks, includes the first use of newly licensed public safety spectrum. The system is a partnership between Brookline and Galaxy Internet services. Likewise, Kentucky is in the process of deploying a high capacity digital voice, video and data emergency network statewide. Harris Stratex Networks, this story says, is heavily involved in the planning and installation of the $42 million network.


This story looks at municipal Wi-Fi in Corpus Christi. The writer says that an informal snapshot in January suggested that only one out of 120 consumers were using the city's municipal Wi-Fi. That, the author says, is "not exactly changing the world." If the story ended there, Wi-Fi in the city would be a failure. But it doesn't:

Where WiFi actually does ignite life-altering change is on the government side. Corpus Christi uses wireless connections to keep building inspectors, code enforcers, police, firefighters and EMTs hooked into the office while out in the field.

The bottom line is that the municipal Wi-Fi focus seems to be shifting. The transition likely will be invisible to residential users during a normal day. It could, however, have a big impact when the chips are down.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 15, 2007 1:36 AM todd glassey todd glassey  says:
This is exactly why a National Emergency Operations model is necessary. This model will include both Internet and Encapsulated VoIP as well as the key services to make Internet access work.We are working on just such a model and will submit it to FEMA, the FCC ans a number of Federal Agencies including the Border Patrol and FBI as part of a National Services Infrastructure.If you are interested in this, please feel free to contact me offlist - the email is below.Thanks!Todd Glassey Reply
Aug 20, 2007 9:11 AM Wes Maffett Wes Maffett  says:
The infrastructure choices for Muni-WiFi are still in the early stages. With no adopted MESH standards in place, the risk for municipalities seems quite high. However, by including emergency services in the mix, IP offers a robust resource management component that cellular does not. Priority service and bandwidth management, of IP, can facilitate the need for information locally and remotely in seconds. A clear advantage over cellular over use, when the chips are down.. Reply

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