One of the unsung heroes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone was occasional OStatic contributor, Aaron Huslage. Aaron drove from Portland to New Orleans, carting a truckful of telephony equipment, a big heart and a can-do attitude that, in less than a week, brought a rudimentary, improvised telephony network to twelve thousand displaced residents of the city. Six volunteers assembled a makeshift infrastructure, atop cell towers, water towers, powerhouses and other tall structures, using a Wimax backhaul and a 900Mhz Trango wireless link to connect civilian shelters – stretching wirelessly from Gulfport to affected areas over a range of around fifteen miles (Gulfport-Mississippi Power Tower-Waveland-Stennis-Port Bienville).
Aaron later shared his experiences with the audience of O’Reilly’s inaugural Emerging Telephony conference in early 2006; appealing to industry experts to contribute knowledge, technology and readiness for future disasters (download Aaron’s Katrina Network Relief Case Study here).
It seems that T-Mobile has heeded the nature of Aaron’s call, and as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the city in the coming hours – a potential redux of the 2006 disasater – has opened its wifi networks for all to use, helping residents stay connected in a time of emergency.
In the areas around the potential disaster zone – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Gulf Coast of Texas and Houston – T-Mobile will be ensuring its HotSpot locations are freely available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
Of course, communication is limited to those with laptops and other wi-fi devices and indeed those within proximity of T-Mobile’s coverage, generously prolific in retail locations such as Starbucks, Borders, Kinko’s and various hotel chains.
Though appears to be a great example of corporate generosity in a time of crisis…I can’t help but think that opening wifi hotspots is unlikely to impact greatly the availability of telephony in a disaster area. Perhaps T-Mobile would be performing a much more valuable civic service by providing free mobile telephony for those in deeply affected areas.
One of the guiding factors of Aaron’s work in the Katrina zone was to utilise standard PSTN phones so survivors had access to technology that was universally accessible. The service provided sixty-thousand voice minutes to twenty-four shelters, churches and homes. Perhaps we should question what, if any, real benefit T-Mobile will be providing… Sciponius ably demonstrated how simple telephony, messaging and mobilty lashed together quickly, could result in a live disaster map unrivalled even by Federal resources.