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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Volunteers rebuild Gulf Coast communications with wireless nets

By John Cox, Network World, 09/16/05 In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a volunteer group of network and wireless experts has moved from outfitting small northeastern Louisiana shelters with wireless Internet access and VoIP phones to preparing a desperately needed 45M bit/sec wireless pipe for the entire relief effort in devastated Bay Saint Louis, Miss. "I've never witnessed destruction like this," says Paul Smith, technology director with the Center for Neighborhood Technology , a Chicago non-profit devoted to making cities more livable. He's one of scores of network volunteers from all over the country who are creating one of the few success stories to emerge from Katrina's demolition of the Gulf Coast's technology infrastructure. As of this week, the emergency management staff of this town of about 8,000 people, plus National Guardsmen; Red Cross workers; and local police, fire and government are relying on a couple of satellite connections, each supporting a 2M bit/sec downlink and just a 512K bit/sec uplink. One of the links had been set up at the Hancock County Medical Center by local U.S. Navy staff. The second was at Stennis International Airport, where the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is based, coordinating all local, state and federal relief efforts in the area. Outbound GSM cellular voice calls could be made fairly reliably, but inbound calls were overwhelming the battered cell networks, Smith says. By the end of this coming weekend, volunteers are expected to have up and running a 45M bit/sec broadband wireless connection hopping from a Bay Saint Louis water tower west some 76 miles to Hammond, La. "We've been given access by the EOC to pretty much the city's entire infrastructure," Smith says. That means the volunteer team can commandeer one of the water towers outside town for the main backhaul connection, essentially a commercialized, high-powered 802.11a 54M bit/sec radio. These devices, running in the unlicensed spectrum, require line-of-sight alignment. The link will probably make two intermediate hops before terminating in Hammond, La. Spoking out from the water tower, other wireless links on 2.4- and 5.8-GHz bands will carry throughput to 25 shelters around the town, the medical center and most importantly to the EOC. In some cases, Smith expects to deploy a wireless LAN mesh, using open source software from the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network project , and hardware from Metrix Communications: single-board computers in a weatherproof housing, 802.11a/b/g radio cards, and Power over Ethernet to simplify deployment. At each of these sites, PCs, laptops, and a combination of VoIP phones and VoIP-enabled analog phones will be able to access the radio bandwidth through a router or a switch. Local action This basic technology pattern and the entire volunteer wireless effort grew out of the decision by a former Mississippi river towboat captain turned wireless broadband provider to set up a similar arrangement at the Mangham Baptist Church in neaby Mangham, La., about 240 miles northwest of New Orleans. Mac Dearman is CEO of Maximum Access, a wireless ISP (WISP) serving a large rural area around Rayville. The day after Katrina struck, he stopped at the church because it was crowded with cars, which was highly unusual given it was a Tuesday. He found scores of evacuees and realized everyone was trying to use the one phone in the church office. With one of his wireless towers visible nearby, Mac and his brother Jay, a local pastor, set up a premises radio, a couple of spare PCs and a couple of VoIP phones. Evacuees were able to start registering on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Web site, entering their names in the missing people databases, searching for relatives and calling them, at a time when government officials and emergency management crews could hardly communicate with each other. Dearman started getting calls from other area churches, all of them sheltering evacuees and all with the same pressing need for communications. After about four days, Dearman e-mailed colleagues about what he was doing via a listserv at the Wireless ISP Association (WISPA ), which by then was working with another industry group of WISPs, Part-15.org , on ways to use wireless gear and expertise to restore communications. Almost at once donations started flowing in, $1,100 within 30 minutes of Dearman's first e-mail. The next day, Jim Patient, president of Jeffco SOHO, a WISP in House Springs, Mo., showed up with a van loaded with relief supplies and time to spend working alongside Dearman. People kept arriving, from Seattle to Buffalo and everywhere in between, bringing still more supplies, equipment, money and unflagging energy despite the clinging, wet heat and fire ants. After a conference call organized by the FCC on Friday, Sept. 9, Part-15 was given the job of coordinating volunteer efforts, and WISPA's officers threw their support behind that. Both groups used their e-mail lists and Web sites to promote the cause and provide channels for contributions of money and gear. Part-15 members were also streaming into the Gulf Coast area, working with local WISPs to restore their networks and creating new ones. "We can create voice and data services, of any magnitude, within 48 hours of arrival," says Michael Anderson, chairman of Part-15. Two miles of Cat 5 In days, the growing volunteer crew based at Dearman's home had equipped over a dozen shelters in the Rayville area, stringing nearly two miles of Category 5 cable, giving hundreds of evacuees data and voice communications. By Monday, Sept. 13, less than a week after starting, the open source Asterisk IP PBX server being used had handled over 10,000 outbound calls, according to Jeffco's Patient. "And we don't tax the public phone network," he says. "On the public net, you have to call 15 times to get a connection. With our stuff, you get dial tone and you make the call." When Patient returned to one shelter with another PC, one evacuee threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "She said 'God bless you, I found my brother,' " Patient says. By the middle of last week, about 30 volunteers had moved south to Ponchatoula to work on outfitting additional shelters as well as addressing the Louisiana side of the wireless pipe for Bay Saint Louis. "The move came at the behest of two non-profits working in the Mississippi town: Inveneo, which designs affordable technology for developing countries, and CityTeam Ministries , which works with the homeless and poor in seven U.S. cities." Frustrations There have been plenty of frustrations, too. Local Red Cross chapters repeatedly refused to let WISPA volunteers set up wireless connections to their facilities, according to Dearman, relying instead on a single DSL line in some cases, and in one case on pay phones. The Center for Neighborhood Technology's Smith brought down a batch of Pentium 3 PCs donated to the center, which reloaded them with the Linux operating system and a batch of open source software applications, including the Firefox browser. The computers worked fine for everything except what is arguably the most important application: the registration forms on the FEMA Web site. After hours of troubleshooting, Smith found that FEMA requires the use of Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0, and no other. "And it's just a simple HTML form," Smith says. "It doesn't need the use of some special IE-only feature." Valuable hours were spent tracking down, and paying for, Windows licenses. After going 72 hours without a shower, Smith says his odor started frustrating co-workers. They dragged him downtown where something perhaps even more valuable at that moment than wireless broadband had been set up: a semi-trailer rigged up with shower cubicles, a changing area and pressurized hot water. UPDATE: VoIP's Role In Katrina Aftermath UnderstatedText messaging, E-mail, video blogs, and other IP-based applications were instrumental in keeping people connected in the wake of the storm, enthusiasts say.

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