March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.04

Safety in (Wireless) Numbers

Public safety professionals arguably demand more from their wireless networks than any other mobile workers.
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By V. Wade Contreras




Public safety professionals arguably demand more from their wireless networks than any other mobile workers. Whether police, fire or military personnel, they need top-notch security for their data, as it’s often sensitive or highly confidential. They need to be able to integrate various wireless technologies into a cohesive strategy for the best coverage. And perhaps most importantly, connectivity cannot lapse at critical times. Lose your connection during an emergency call? Disaster.

One company working to provide a high-tech wireless solution for the challenges of the public safety sector is NetMotion of Seattle. In May, NetMotion announced the latest iteration of its flagship product, Mobility XE, a scalable software solution that supports deployment of mission-critical apps over wireless networks. NetMotion currently boasts approximately 1,100 customers, and nearly 250 of those are public safety organizations.

“Essentially, what we do is enable any legacy applications to work over any IP-based network without requiring any development, customization or modification,” says Aaron Burnett, senior director of marketing for NetMotion. “We also enable mobile workers to roam from network to network as though they’re on a single unified network.”

Mobility XE’s promise of persistent connectivity is vital for public safety organizations transitioning from CDPD networks to next-generation networks like GPRS and updated wireless protocols like 802.11. Other pluses along the way include easy scalability, enhanced network speeds, added security and centralized server/client management. It sounded good coming from the company, but we thought we’d check it out with some of NetMotion’s customers using it every day in the field.

Small Town Goes High Tech

Scot Haug, lieutenant in charge of patrol, communications and information services for the Post Falls Police Department in Idaho, has been using NetMotion for a couple of years. It’s a fairly small deployment, consisting of 25 squad cars using Gateway Solo 5300 laptops running Windows 2000. But far from what you might expect in such a small suburb, Post Falls uses some fairly cutting-edge public safety technology. The city received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to build a citywide Proxim wireless network. “Our vision to start with was to basically put the desktop in the car,” says Haug. “But as it evolved, we started to see so many more benefits.”

The Post Falls PD utilizes approximately 25 wireless access points set up throughout the city on water towers, light poles, city buildings and cell towers. Haug says the city’s 60 to 70 square miles are about 90 percent covered. Officers use PC Cards connected to an external antenna on their vehicle. As they drive around the city, they roam seamlessly from access point to access point, and NetMotion handles the connectivity behind the scenes. The officers can also access about 40 pan/tilt zoom cameras, which are placed throughout the city in problematic areas, from their laptops.

“They can be on the opposite side of the city and bring up the cameras over there and see what’s going on,” explains Haug. “Those cameras are recorded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, digitally to a digital server.”

Though the city of 22,000 residents now boasts a state-of-the-art wireless communications infrastructure, Haug originally came to NetMotion simply looking for a way to keep wireless sessions from dropping. The police force utilizes Telnet sessions that route up-to-the-second computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data from the station to officers in the field, and it’s often life-or-death information with no room for a dropped connection.

“If you lose the connection, even for a second, with a Telnet session, you risk losing the whole session,” says Haug. “What NetMotion offers is, when you lose the connection, the client continues to hold all those sessions open until it recognizes a wireless link again, and then it automatically authenticates behind the scenes and re-establishes all those sessions.”

Haug says his wireless system allows officers to be out on the street more, and it’s shaved three and a half minutes off the average response time to calls, which is a big deal in an emergency. Now officers can maintain a police presence simply by sitting in their car and doing their reports. “Before NetMotion, they would go out and [then] drive back to the police department to fill out their reports. Now they can be out in the field, many times in our problematic areas, while doing those reports … and at the same time be a deterrent to criminal activity.”
Haug also found that NetMotion paid dividends with respect to wireless security. Not satisfied with WEP offerings when his network was being rolled out, Haug liked NetMotion’s software layer of security.

“It allows you to dynamically change the [security] keys at set intervals, which is very attractive to us, especially when you’re talking about law enforcement or sensitive data,” says Haug. He also likes NetMotion’s proprietary compression scheme that adds another layer of data protection. If hackers were able to get into the network, they would then have to decipher the compression.

Post Falls has seen a return on investment (ROI) in call response time, wireless security and reliable Telnet sessions, and Haug says the rollout of NetMotion was painless. “There were some configuration issues … but basically, once you get the server software loaded, you put the software on all of the clients, and it went very smooth for us.” He’s also happy with NetMotion’s free upgrades and telephone support, a boon to a small agency without deep pockets.

On the Cutting EDGE

One of the next-generation wireless networks that public safety agencies may be looking at for better performance in the field is AT&T’s EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution) offering. Unveiled in late 2003, the GSM/GPRS-based network promises average data speeds between 100 and 130 kbps (about two to three times faster than dial-up). It can also “burst” data up to 200 kbps when the user is near a cell tower. The network is available nationally in 8,500 cities and is targeting business customers that need to access higher bandwidth applications, such as public safety organizations.

“It basically allows you to take a good part of your office with you when you’re mobile,” says John Kampfe, spokesperson for AT&T Wireless. “You can access criminal databases at much quicker speeds. You can do things like file reports on a laptop if you’re a police officer.”

AT&T also has plans to take EDGE global. It recently announced the first tri-band wireless modem card for use with EDGE, so it will be compatible with international wireless standards. The network is currently available in Puerto Rico and Bermuda, and Rogers AT&T Wireless plans to deploy EDGE throughout its Canada-wide network in 2004. In addition, wireless carriers in Finland, Italy and Hong Kong have signed on to deploy EDGE.

“So you’ll be able to use it internationally,” says Kampfe. “Why would a public safety organization care about that? With the times we live in with international terrorism, local police jurisdictions are doing stuff internationally.” •

V. Wade Contreras is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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