Muni Wi-Fi Pitches In after Twin Cities Bridge Collapse

By Lisa Phifer

August 08, 2007

Communications suppport for rescue workers and command center allowed for rapid, effective operational response.

Ever since the first municipal Wi-Fi project was proposed, public debates have raged about who really stands to benefit.  Last week, when the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapsed, Twin City emergency workers and residents learned the answer: We all do.

Rapid response

During the frightening hours that followed the rush-hour bridge collapse, Minnetonka-based U.S. Internet chose to roll up its collective sleeves and do what it could to help.


Upon hearing the news, the CEO of the U.S. Internet subsidiary building the Wireless Minneapolis network reportedly tried to call city officials to see what they might need.  When his call was blocked, Joe Caldwell decided to facilitate communication by disabling his wireless network’s paid-login process.  Within an hour, Wi-Fi Internet was freely available to everyone within its metro footprint.  Usage quickly grew to over 6,000 concurrent users – about six times the number of paid subscribers.


In fact, as many as 1 in 5 cellular calls to and from the disaster area failed to go through when demand peaked after the collapse.  According to the Chicago Tribune, emergency workers resorted to personal cell phones as back-up for a new universal radio system, prompting authorities to ask residents to hold their calls to keep the lines open for rescuers.  By quickly opening its municipal network, Wireless Minneapolis gave a panicked city an alternate way to reach friends and family.

On-site delivery

To further aid rescue workers, U.S. Internet scrambled to augment its Wi-Fi coverage surrounding the I-35 bridge.  Wireless Minneapolis is a relatively new municipal network, in the earliest stages of a six-phase build-out that will eventually cover 60 square miles.  As luck would have it, the first phase includes the western side of I-35, a stretch that borders the Mississippi river and the failed bridge.


“Thank goodness that this piece of the network was already up and operational,” said Minneapolis CIO Lynn Willenbring.  By enabling high-speed wireless communication, Wireless Minneapolis helped the city deliver critical support to on-site workers.  Specifically, the city’s IT department provided desk-side support for the emergency operations command center and delivered the maps needed by traffic and recovery efforts.


“We have been able to get information to the command center readily and we are talking heavy files, Geographic Information System [maps]," said Willenbring.  Without the network, the city would have been forced to deliver maps by courier.  “We're so fortunate the downtown phase was finished,” said Willenbring.  “If it had happened in another part of the city, our operational response would have been severely limited.”

Beyond the call of duty

Convenient high-speed Internet access is one thing.  But the full promise of municipal Wi-Fi lies in its ability to support a broad set of services that contribute to the wellbeing of the community.  From encouraging tourism and business development to connecting low-income families and municipal systems, there are many ways in which a muni Wi-Fi network can prove itself useful.


Over the weekend, U.S. Internet demonstrated one such application by hurriedly installing webcams in the vicinity of the failed bridge and associated detour routes.  Each webcam is linked to a Wi-Fi transceiver, connected to the Wireless Minneapolis network.  Full pan, tilt, and zoom controls on those webcams now give government officials the ability to see the bridge recovery and rebuilding process in real-time.


By reacting rapidly and productively to the Twin City’s needs over the past week, U.S. Internet did its own community – and muni Wi-Fi projects everywhere – a big favor.  “The use of municipal Wi-Fi in emergencies has been talked about for years in scenario white-board planning, but it has never really been put into play,” said Caldwell.  “What we found out [last week] is that it is definitely viable and makes a huge difference.”

Originally published on .

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