Wi-Fi network and GIS prove critical in coping with Minneapolis bridge disaster

A partially completed, two-month old Wi-Fi network in Minneapolis has proved vital in the city’s response to this week's collapse of its most important bridge.

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A partially completed, two-month old Wi-Fi network in Minneapolis has proved vital in the city’s response to this week's collapse of its most important bridge.

It has 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.

The city is deploying the Wi-Fi network throughout its 60 square miles. While only part of it is now up and running, one of those areas is in the downtown area near the scene of the bridge collapse.

"Thank goodness we had it in and that this piece of the network was already up and operational," said Minneapolis City CIO Lynn Willenbring. "We could not have been as effective if it were not for that."

Willenbring was at a soccer match when she learned of the disaster. The IT department immediately went to work to provide basic support and desk-side services for the city's emergency operations command centre. The city's GIS staff also worked through the night to prepare maps, both for public use and internally to assist with traffic and recovery efforts, she said.

One of things that quickly became important was wireless access. Minneapolis is the anchor tenant of the Wi-Fi system and has a certain portion reserved for its use. The network is open to subscribers who pay a monthly flat fee and there were 1,000 subscribers on the system the day of the collapse.

One of the arguments for building such networks is help in an emergency, and Willenbring said that's been the case in Minneapolis.

On the first night of the disaster, US Internet, the Minneapolis Wi-FI provider opened up the network so anyone could use it for free; the number of concurrent users quickly grew to 6,000, said Willenbring.

"We have been able to get information to the command centre readily and we are talking heavy files, GIS-based mapping ... that are just critical," said Willenbring. The Wi-Fi network is also now supporting webcams.

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.

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