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Calling All Cars

In 2004, when the city of Fresno began planning a new public-safety network for wireless communications, the city went through an RFP and demonstration process that was a "miserable failure," according to Police Captain Pat Rhames, who heads the Fresno PD's management support bureau.

The problem was that "what we thought we wanted" -- an 802.11 network than ran over the 2.4GHz radio frequency, with a range of about three square miles per node -- worked poorly in Fresno's tree-filled neighborhoods, largely because the moisture in the tree canopies degraded the radio signal. The result was that the range of the network nodes was reduced to a quarter-mile or less.

So Rhames and his team went through another RFP, this time settling on a system that comprises a suite of mobile applications from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) built on a broadband 900MHz network from Alvarion Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: ALVR) The new network was built on top of the city's existing 800MHz network, which had been in place since the late 1990s but which did not fulfill California Department of Justice requirements for encryption.

The somewhat tortuous path of Fresno's public-safety wireless deployment is instructive, both in terms of the pitfalls that the city avoided (or fell into, in some cases), and of the choice of networking technology. While many cities are falling in love with 802.11 mesh networks, Fresno went in a different direction -- partly because of cost issues, and partly because the Alvarion solution allowed the city to re-use standing infrastructure. (See Strix Advances Mesh Architecture.)

The Fresno network also represents what is likely to be a growing trend over the next year, as major vendors like Nortel and systems integrators like IBM pair up with networking startups like Alvarion to provide comprehensive solutions for both local governments and large corporations. The Fresno rollout is a pilot implementation for IBM and Alvarion, which have teamed to offer municipalities and public-safety departments complete wireless systems that comprise end-users applications, middleware, and network infrastructure.

"It's no news for anybody that the IT world is moving over into telecom," explains Alvarion VP of marketing Carlton O'Neal. "It's a great irony that in a big city like Fresno, they had all this capability in terms of computer technology and databases, but they didn't have any way to connect all of that information to people doing work in the field."

The alliance with the world's largest provider of IT services and consulting, adds O'Neal, means that "IBM makes all this stuff available -- databases of mug shots, fingerprints, security video streams, VOIP, etc. -- and we're the fat pipe that connects it all."

Not that the Fresno pilot has been an unalloyed triumph. "It hasn't been as wildly successful as we'd hoped it would be," allows Rhames, "but it has allowed us to accomplish a lot of our basic objectives."

As with the earlier, failed demos, the main problem has been coverage. While the 900MHz system offers better penetration through dense foliage, the infrastructure for that network covers less than half the city -- so the police department has continued to use its pre-existing 800MHz network. Police cars now carry equipment for both networks. Successfully managing handoffs as vehicles pass from a 900MHz cell into the broader 800MHz net has been "dicey, to put it mildly," Rhames says.

"It's easy to ping and pass" data traffic as the squad cars move through different network zones, he adds, "but when you start running applications with a lot of packets going back and forth, they have to arrive complete or the application doesn't know what do with the data."

Tuning the network to handle those kinds of handoffs required a high degree of cooperation between the vendor (Alvarion) and the systems integrator (IBM) -- and entailed sacrificing a certain degree of coverage. Fresno officials hoped that the new network would cover around 50 percent of the city; with four additional towers going up soon, including equipment subsidized by IBM in acknowledgment of the reduced coverage, Rhames thinks the new network will reach 30 to 40 percent of the city.

If he had it to do over again, Rhames adds, he would start with a smaller core coverage area that was completely saturated and build outward, rather than attempting a wide-area network that includes dead zones. Filling in holes, in other words, is harder than expanding a small but fully covered zone.

The new system cost around $850,000, with $750,000 of that coming from a federal Community Oriented Policing Systems (COPS) grant.

As Alvarion and IBM work out the kinks, you can expect to see more municipalities opt for this kind of joint-provider network. "Really this marriage is kind of a first," claims O'Neal, "in this trend where enterprise IT gets wedded with broadband wireless."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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