Arizona enlists university students to test emergency networks

Published 12 May 2006

Forget what you heard about Generation X: Technology-savvy university students and their instructors help the state pin-point problems with a wireless emergency network along a stretch of lonely highway

There is not much to look at along Arizona’s Interstate 19 except rattle snakes, coyotes, and tumbleweed. Still, several students from Tempe, Arizona-based University of Advancing Technology (UAT), led by UAT’s IT manager of development Raymond Todd Blackwood, were enlisted by the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council (ATIC) to help test a wireless network to be used by emergency first responders and other rural users on southern Arizona’s Interstate 19.

After the state of Arizona received a grant to build an 802.11b wireless network on a stretch of highway in southern Arizona between Rio Rico and Green Valley, ATIC was to prepare a report for the Department of Homeland Security by March 31 to renew the grant. Network problems arose and the council didn’t have the manpower or resources to find out why. Blackwood, a former board member of ATIC, was involved with the Rio Rico Project since its inception two years ago. When the network problems arose, Blackwood’s UAT connection came in handy. “Because of UAT’s reputation with technology and wireless technology — and the Phoenix Wardriving project — we knew that we had the equipment and expertise to go down there and do the assessment very quickly,” he said.

Arizona’s state government commissioned the prototype network infrastructure along thirty miles of I-19 for first responders — ambulance, border patrol, firemen, and police — and rural users. The goal was to provide emergency groups with a global communications system, which eventually would be expanded to include schools, businesses, consumers and agencies. Blackwood and the additional school representatives — a nine-person team using three cars — conducted network assessments on laptops, with roof-mounted antennas transmitting and receiving data. They communicated through walkie-talkies, noting the infrastructure problems.

ATIC will take the results from UAT’s findings and fix the network accordingly. With UAT’s work with the state and homeland security, the group has extended their expertise to the public sector. “The school now has a reputation with the state of Arizona, with Homeland Security, with first responder teams that we are the experts in wireless technologies,” said Blackwood, “And we are the organization of people that you go to in order to find answers about wireless devices.”