On August 1, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis. I learned about it on the train home when somebody IMed me to ask about it. My parents live in the area now, and my brother was going to be visiting that day, so I made a few quick phone calls to see if everybody was OK. Calling landlines in the area resulted in an “all circuits busy” tone, but I was able to get through to my family’s mobile phones. They don’t live in the same cell as the bridge, which is a good thing according to this recent article in Wi-Fi Planet:
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.
The article expands on the topic of network access in disasters, noting how network access can be a lifeline. Rapid capacity expansion is a well-known advantage of wireless networks. It won’t be long before disaster-management teams routinely bring wireless equipment, either in the form of 802.11 or some other technology, on to disaster sites to assist the rescue teams.
Municipal networks have an advantage in being the network equivalent of the “first responder.” Many of these networks are now moving in the direction of more secure access technologies, such as 802.1X (WPA Enterprise) and away from browser-based logins. As this shift occurs, networks will need to provide access to emergency services, usually by regulatory mandate. Within 802.11, the protocol features to enable unauthenticated access for limited purpose is being developed in 802.11u.