Wireless to the Rescue

By Eric Griffith

September 06, 2005

The recovery of the devastated Gulf Coast continues, with both big companies and tech non-profits alike offering help where they can.

For a week, it seemed no one could communicate out of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. This week, on the communications front at least, things are looking up.

Verizon Wireless, for example, said this weekend it had completely restored service in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Pensacola, Florida; and Jackson, Mississippi. Things are improving in Mobile, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi, and even in New Orleans. They're using Cell on Wheels (COWs) in some areas where antennas don't have power, and installing generators for others. Likewise, T-Mobile had restored service in downtown New Orleans by installing a generator at a high-capacity cellular tower site (on top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel Astor on Canal Street). Cingular fully restored service in Mobile and Jackson, and has crews in New Orleans. Sprint Nextel is also working on services in the area.

Nice as this is—especially given that Bell South says 810,000 phone lines are still out in the three Gulf states—restoring cellular connections isn't necessarily helping everyone. Cell phones and their chargers are useless without power, after all. It might not help first responders at all, either. The citywide 800MHz radio system used by the NOLA police went down when power went out. In fact, the older systems might not be the best way to get New Orleans back in touch.

Intel, for example, plans to deploy as many as 50 Wi-Fi MetroMesh routers from Tropos Networks in downtown New Orleans and near the airport to give free services to workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Intel is also giving the Red Cross 1,500 laptops from partners like Dell and Lenova, plus another 150 access points for permanent shelters to get those computers online.

Sascha Meinrath, the project coordinator of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN), an open source project for creating free community networks, got the go-ahead this past holiday weekend to head to New Orleans and deploy the CUWiN brand of wireless. Teams from various locations are going to converge in Rayville, Louisiana to start work, but already are being told that food, water, and gasoline are in short supply. All are traveling by car, as flights are limited and expensive.

On his blog, Meinrath says the CUWiN open-source mesh Wi-Fi system will work as a disaster recovery telecommunications infrastructure "with necessary tweaking and the addition of solar/battery power." This would probably be used for inter-network connections, rather than just Internet connectivity (though that would still be available where backhaul can supply it). CUWiN nodes can be built from any Intel/x86 computer running supported Wi-Fi chipsets.

Interestingly, CUWiN applied for a federal grant to build a low-cost, open source disaster recovery system in 2003, but was not given any funding.

CUWiN is working with Part-15.org, a group hoping to re-establish communications by working directly with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and FEMA. P15 is looking for donations in the form of equipment and volunteers and, of course, funds.

Not just the disaster-stricken areas need help—there's a lot of victims that have been transported to places like the Houston Astrodome in Texas. Meinrath said on the CUwireless.net Web site on Monday Sept. 5 that the "folks working on the Houston Astrodome LPFM station... authorities are saying that before they [can] go live with the station they need to get 10,000 radios for distribution (and 20,000+ batteries to run them)." A transmitter for low-power FM (LPFM) communications is expected there by Wednesday, Sept. 7—it will be used to broadcast public service announcements, among other things.

Those with experience in wireless/mesh networking, VoIP, and LPFM that are looking to help in any recovery area should e-mail cu-wireless-response@cuwireless.net.

For those that got out of the way of Katrina and still can't communicate, T-Mobile has turned off all charges at their hotspots in the Gulf states until at least Friday Sept. 9. Likewise, local WISP US Wireless, which owns the Verge Wireless subsidiary in Baton Rouge, will offer free access at its hotspots and hotzones. Many of those locations were in NOLA, and the company is "in the process of planning additional network services in New Orleans and how to expand coverage in the Baton Rouge area, which has grown to become the largest city in the state of Louisiana," according to Carlo MacDonald, Verge's General Manager in Louisiana.



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