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Free Wi-Fi Aids New Orleans Recovery

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Wi-fi technology is helping aid workers and residents of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans get the city back on its feet.

Last fall, IT administrators in New Orleans set up the nation’s first free wireless Internet network that is solely owned and operated by a major U.S. city. The move was first aimed at helping aid workers do their jobs and was then expanded to boost the city’s struggling businesses and enable residents to communicate with friends, relatives and much-needed federal and city services.

While residents had an overwhelmingly positive response to the set-up of the network, area telephone and cable companies weren’t as happy about the deal, which offered free service within a three-square-mile range that covers the French Quarter, the central business district and the warehouse district. Vendors that offer broadband Internet service in the area have complained, pointing to a state law that mandates that any municipal network run at 128Kbit/sec — a far cry from the 512Kbit/sec service that is offered now.

Chris Drake, who worked last fall as project manager on a contract basis for the mayor’s Office of Technology in New Orleans, says they’re working hard to keep this free, high-speed service up and running. For starters, the city’s CIO, Greg Meffert, is pushing to have the state law changed, allowing municipalities to run networks at higher speeds, according to Drake.

The city also is in negotiations with Earthlink. Drake says they want the ISP to take over the existing network and then build it out to cover the entire area where the city’s population has returned. So far, Earthlink reportedly is agreeing to do this at the company’s expense. This free Earthlink service wouldn’t be able to run at 512Kbit/sec, says Drake, but they should be able to keep it at 384Kbit/sec — fast enough to enable most applications and Voice over IP phone calls.

The New Orleans city council will meet Thursday night to haggle over the deal.

”This has been central to the recovery,” says Drake. ”You would have thought you were bringing starving people food from the reaction on the street and the phone calls. At City Hall, nobody comes down to say ‘thank you’. To get calls from people to say ‘thanks’ was unusual and heartening. We heard stories about law firms being able to come back to town. People were able to call relatives without driving 30 miles to get access. It was really pretty unique.”

Drake says they began setting up hotspots within New Orleans within days of when Hurricane Katrina rolled through the city, leaving massive flooding, blocks and blocks of destroyed buildings and houses, and much of an entire city homeless. The gear — $1.2 million worth of equipment donated by Intel Corp. and Tropos Networks Inc. — was set up on street lights and quickly became a lifeline for the city.

”Some of the first VoIP phone calls that the mayor made were from a wi-fi network at the Hyatt where he was based,” says Drake. ”We set up our emergency operations center there. It was the first building in the area to get power back, and that’s where the mayor and his executive staff were holed up… His first phone call to President Bush was a VoIP call. It was a Vonage phone call.”

Having that ability to communicate with officials from the government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was critical to saving lives and getting the city back on its feet.

”It let the mayor get his message out,” says Drake. ”There was not a lot of media capability to cover him. His ability to rally the troops and get his message out were because of wireless. It was a touchstone network. It gave him connectivity to the outside world that he would not have had. It was a comfort where he was holed up in that building without communications. It was very important.”

Setting up the Network

Drake says the biggest issue they had in setting up the network in the days, weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina hit was the safety of his workers. Many streets were flooded. There were military vehicles rolling through the city. Residents were afraid and sometimes violent. It wasn’t the best of situations to send crews out to install gear.

”The biggest problem for us was the safety for our folks in the bucket trucks,” says Drake. ”A lot of street lights were out and there was a lot of concern about safety with all the traffic and a lot of military vehicles in town going very fast. Once infrastructure power came back up, we beamed in the capacity injection.”

Drake explains that they used a mesh wi-fi network so they didn’t need a wire to every access point. Only one in five access points needs to be connected by a wire. With mesh wi-fi networks, you don’t have to have a wire to every hotspot because they share bandwidth. ”We put up one or two components on a pole, whether it’s a gateway or a node,” he says. ”As you get a greater density of users, you just put up more capacity. We never ran a single wire… It certainly helped in some areas. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to have a team big enough to string wires up on poles. We did three square miles with people in a bucket truck in about three weeks.”

Drake, who works for the city as a contractor from New Orleans-based IT consulting firm NetMethods, LLC, took an even bigger role in the city’s recovery than his title as project manager would normally convey. He was tapped to become the operations manager for the Emergency Operations Center in the city for the first five months that it was operating.

”Everybody had to do what they could, but I had an IT skill set with strong organizational skills,” he says. ”We had to literally build an emergency operations center first so there was a lot of IT associated with that. We needed computers, VoIP phones, data applications connecting to the wireless network. And then once we built it, I managed it because I knew it more intimately than anyone else. I had gotten to know all the people working there too.”

The wi-fi set up was critical because it acted as a least common denominator for all the workers and rescue teams flooding into the devastated city.

”As volunteers came in, almost all of them had laptops with wi-fi on them. We could say here’s the information and boom they were on. There was nothing proprietary. If it had been, we wouldn’t have been able to handle all the people coming into the city to help.” Drake says they handled 200 to 300 ‘public safety types’ daily — everyone from military personnel to FBI agents, EMTs, firefighters and public workers.

”With wi-fi they all could walk in with their laptops and get on the network,” says Drake, adding that they might have been able to service 100 at a time without wireless.

”Search and rescue couldn’t have been done without it,” he says. ”We were using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to label areas of the city. One of the big problems in response to a disaster is having three people doing the same thing. You’re wasting resources. With wi-fi and everyone having access to the same data, we could assign teams. We could say, ‘Red Team, you’re taking this area and Blue Team, you’re taking that area. Everybody got their maps for daily searches and their marching orders online. Once we had the wider network up, we had wireless capability out at the remote areas. They could show up at their ward search and rescue station and get their orders for the day without coming in to downtown New Orleans. It really evolved with the growing and changing needs to remain useful.”

Drake says the whole process has changed how people — both residents and those in city government — view IT.

”The vision was to fully articulate IT within the business process where you have an articulate, knowledgeable IT person at the director level, and then on the implementation side to not back down and be cowed by the daily difficulties of municipal government politics or other pressures,” says Drake.

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