FCC Opens Safety Floodgates

The market for public safety wireless systems is finally starting to heat up after a crucial Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling this week that relaxes the regulations on the kind of radios that can be used in 4.9GHz band.

It is entirely possible that you may have missed this particular memo, all about emission masks in the 4.9GHz band, which is exclusively reserved for public safety purposes. But the FCC essentially relaxed a previous ruling aimed at minimizing interference between 4.9GHz devices, which would entail vendors using purpose-built radios with low-signal bleed characteristics.

Now the FCC has said that lower-power 4.9GHz radios don't have to conform to such tight interference specifications, meaning that vendors can tweak off-the-shelf 5GHz 802.11a wireless LAN radios for use in their public safety kit. Although higher-power kit will still have to conform to the tighter interference requirements.

This could open up the potentially hugely lucrative market to a vast pack of 802.11 vendors, particularly those already developing mesh-based metro zone products. Mesh startup PacketHop pushed for the change, arguing that allowing 802.11 vendors into the market will "give the public safety community access to affordable and interoperable equipment."

802.11 mesh infrastructure startup Tropos Networks told Unstrung earlier this week that it is looking at developing equipment for 4.9Ghz band. Expect others to follow suit.

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), the dominant player in the wireless public safety market, had been pushing to maintain the stricter emission controls on 4.9GHz kit.

But Moto's partner, startup MeshNetworks Inc., reckons that there will still be a market for higher-power 4.9GHz gear, even after the WiFi vendors start to bring out new boxes, since low-power 4.9GHz equipment based on the 802.11a spec is likely to be restricted to a wireless range of a couple of hundred feet.

Rick Rotondo, MeshNetworks VP of technical marketing, says that the firm is looking at delivering metro-scale 4.9GHz public safety kit capable of handling "mission-critical" applications like video surveillance and in-field reporting. The firm won't go public with a roadmap yet, but Rotondo reckons that dedicated public safety kit will start to arrive over the next couple of years.

"Now that the FCC has laid down exactly what is, people know what to build," Rotondo says. "You're going to see things moving pretty fast."

Rotondo estimates that the public safety market -- flush with homeland security dollars -- could be worth anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion over the next couple of years.

The New York City contract alone could be a tasty prize for the public safety players. "People are estimating that could be worth up to $2 billion," says Rotondo. "You get a couple like that and it starts to add up."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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