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Posted: 12.03

Features

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Wireless Trailblazers

Next-generation cellular networks finally have decent coverage. Here’s a look at three law enforcement agencies using them—and one that isn’t.

By Tim Kridel



With the economy in a funk and governments tightening their belts another notch, now should be the worst time for law enforcement agencies to attempt a major overhaul of their wireless service. But we found four that still made a business case for major upgrades. Their reasons range from CDPD providers shutting off service to a need for speed, but there is a common denominator: It’s an investment that pays off in terms of productivity and officer safety.

Same Providers, New Technology

AT&T Wireless plans to shut down its CDPD network by June 30, 2004, but some customers have already finished switching to its successor: general packet radio service (GPRS), which provides average rates of 30 kbps and peaks of 115 kbps, as well as extensive coverage.

One example is the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, whose coverage includes 112 miles of islands in the Florida Keys. Some of the locations are remote enough that all vehicles are equipped with external antennas, which had to be replaced in the transition to GPRS.

Monroe County also stuck with its modem provider, Sierra Wireless, switching up to AirCard 750 PC cards. Road deputies use Panasonic Toughbooks, while lieutenants and captains use Dell laptops. NetMotion Mobility software manages connectivity and security.

“From the officer point of view, there was no difference,” says Michael Grattan, information services system administrator for Monroe County. “They simply brought their laptops in, we swapped the cards, loaded the new drivers and NetMotion, explained that they would have to log on to NetMotion and off they went.” One difference is that although GPRS offers comparable coverage, it’s less stable. “GPRS does not seem as solid as CDPD,” Grattan says. “We do get dropped connections.”

Grattan’s advice is to test, test and test again, and then don’t be afraid to hold off deploying a solution that hasn’t proven up to snuff. “When we’re considering any kind of software or hardware change,” Grattan says, “I drive around and beat the thing until we know all the potential gotchas. We actually held off deploying GPRS until we were a couple of days away from the CDPD turn-off date because of some problems.”

One problem was that the SmartCOP MCT application needs a static IP address, which CDPD provides but GPRS and CDMA 1xRTT don’t. NetMotion Mobility solved that problem by giving each device a static IP address, but it also tackled two other problems: Its Application Session Persistence feature kept apps from crashing in areas with spotty coverage, and its built-in encryption met Florida’s requirement for securing law enforcement data sent over a public network.

With GPRS, Monroe County gets transfer rates of about 40 kbps, which NetMotion kicks up to about 70 kbps through compression and caching. The speed has translated into both greater productivity and immediate access to key information that can determine whether a traffic stop is just a speeder or a felon. “Now it’s much easier for an officer to search for and retrieve a license photo while on the side of the road,” Grattan says. “We had one incident where an officer ran a plate and confirmed it was stolen before he even brought the suspect’s car to a stop.”

Wireless Data, Finally

Protecting the vast Ontario province is tough enough, but it’s even tougher when your private wireless network supports only voice. “When it’s really busy, there are bottlenecks getting information to the officer,” says Lawre Pietras, team leader for projects and procurement for the Ontario Provincial Police.

That’s why in early 2003, the OPP began testing CDMA 1xRTT and GPRS with multiple carriers. It has since narrowed the field to CDMA 1xRTT, with average rates of 65 kbps, but hasn’t decided between that technology’s two main Canadian carriers: Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility. Both have good CDMA 1xRTT coverage, but it is limited to the main 400-number highways, Pietras says. The OPP looked at dual-mode systems that fall back on other technologies in areas without CDMA 1xRTT coverage, but opted for a platform that stores information and automatically sends and receives it when the officer moves back into CDMA 1xRTT coverage.

“You’re never going to beat the speed of having data stored locally on the devices,” says Pietras. “If we get enough funding, we’d like to go across the province, so there are spots where we’re never going to have cellular coverage. If we go to a fallback solution, that still works only where there’s coverage.”

In early 2003, about 18 OPP cruisers were equipped with Panasonic Toughbooks and trunk-mounted, ruggedized Sierra Wireless MP 555 GPS modems. To ease the learning curve, the OPP transferred its wired LAN’s image to the Toughbooks’ desktops. “The apps that we don’t want on wireless because they’re bandwidth hogs are grayed out,” Pietras says. “The look and feel is very similar to what they have in the office.”

The remaining 302 vehicles should be upgraded by the end of 2003, but Pietras already has a good sense of the ROI. The bottlenecks are gone and each officer’s daily productivity has increased by an hour or more. “On average, a traffic stop without a notebook and printer takes about 20 minutes,” Pietras says. “With a notebook and printer, it takes under 5 minutes.”

Tight Budget, Good Results

For the Orem, Utah, department of public safety, AT&T Wireless’ CDPD coverage wasn’t a problem. In fact, sometimes it was too good, such as when its officers traveled to other states for training—and wound up roaming on other CDPD networks. “We got a roaming charge for a couple of thousand dollars,” says Justina Liu, a system analyst/programmer. “AT&T was able to restrict that, and they reimbursed us.”
Earlier this year, Orem switched to Nextel’s iDEN, which claims better interoperability with state and federal agencies while limiting roaming-related surprises. “With Nextel, you can go anywhere that they cover,” Liu says. “You don’t have to worry about roaming.”

Orem also liked the fact that Nextel runs data over a private network rather than the public telephone network, making it less vulnerable to major outages. Although iDEN supports faster access to key apps such as FATPOT Technologies’ PSI Powwow system, used by more than 80 Utah departments and agencies, Orem’s security features currently limit it to CDPD-type rates of 19.2 kbps. “We still use a static IP, which limits speed,” Liu says. “We’re in the process of changing the way we Telnet to our main system. After that, we won’t have to use a static IP. We probably can go above 144 kbps.”

The switch from CDPD leveraged as much existing equipment as possible. For example, Orem uses cables to link more than 80 Nextel handsets to its existing line-up of Dell and Gateway laptops. Some plug into the USB port, but on older models the serial port is used so that the citation printer can use the lone USB port. Another long-term option is iDEN BlackBerrys. “We have a really tight budget this fiscal year,” Liu says. “In the future, we’d probably consider that if the budget allows.”

Wi-Fi to the Core

Plenty of law enforcement agencies use Wi-Fi inside their facilities, and a few use it to cover a half-block or so just outside. The San Mateo, Calif., Police Department has gone a step further: It’s blanketed the city’s downtown area with 802.11b. “In this one square mile, they can walk anywhere within downtown and be in coverage,” says Lt. Wayne Hoss.

The SMPD uses Tropos Networks’ mesh technology, which provides cellular-like coverage: As officers move out of range of one Wi-Fi access point, they’re automatically switched to one of the downtown’s 16 others. NetMotion software manages the handoff and VPN connectivity. “You could be in the middle of a download, leave one zone and go to another, and it automatically resumes the download,” Hoss says.

Outside Wi-Fi coverage, they’re switched to the SMPD’s private, data-only network, but 802.11b coverage currently is being doubled to include high-traffic areas such as a mall, the freeway and city hall. Most officers use Panasonic Toughbooks with built-in Wi-Fi, but a few use 802.11b-equipped Compaq (now HP) PDAs. Despite Wi-Fi’s deserved rep for poor security, the SMPD isn’t worrying after deploying a VPN and multiple firewalls with intrusion detection. “It’s a multi-layered approach to security,” says Hoss.

Speed was the biggest draw. “We wanted access to some of the resources that were available only at the station,” Hoss says. “Everything that we had to return to the station to do we now can do in the patrol cars. It gave us access to sex offender information, AMBER Alerts and the California DMV photograph system.”

Hoss’ advice for others considering Wi-Fi? “Be realistic about 802.11b’s coverage. You’re not going to be able to cover your entire city, so pick areas in your town where you have a high concentration of officers. Spread it out throughout your town so that officers don’t have to go far to get access.”

Tim Kridel is a Calif.-based freelance writer who covers technology.

Copyright ©2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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