Florida police, rescue squads test wireless technology

Motorola Inc. is conducting an ambitious wireless trial in Florida to allow public safety personnel to send colour video wirelessly to vehicles in the field and to conduct wireless videoconferencing, complete with voice and data.

Motorola’s Greenhouse project was first tested in December and was introduced yesterday at the International Association of Public Safety Communications Officials conference in Salt Lake City.

Seven fire, police and emergency medical service vehicles in Pinellas County, Fla., have been equipped with colour, touch-screen panels the size of a laptop computer. When the screens are fully functioning, personnel in vehicles should be able to receive wireless video streams showing, for example, a convenience-store robbery that had just been videotaped, the latest sketch or video of a missing person, or a photo and fingerprints of a criminal suspect. Fire departments and emergency personnel could potentially see building plans with locations for hydrants and exits. Dispatchers could talk to crews in vehicles using wireless videoconferencing, supplemented by data if needed, said Marianne Pasha of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

“With all the worries about school shootings, we have a database with maps of schools and the building configurations. Imagine how useful it would be to zap that map to units responding to a school to show exits and fire hydrants,” Pasha said.

A videotape of a robbery might reveal a suspect with a limp or show a robber wearing a shirt with a distinctive design, she added.

While the use of such technology in the public safety realm is admirable, analysts said it could be years before the applications are developed to suit corporate users. However, Motorola is honing the technology in the hopes that it will eventually benefit private business users, a spokesman said.

“These applications are targeted now at public safety but could eventually migrate to the private sector,” said spokesman Steve Gorecki.

The big question for business users is how they might deploy video uses wirelessly. Applications could include video dissemination of corporate announcements or training videos. For instance, a mechanic could get a quick tutorial in the field on how to install a part or what it looks like when it moves. Ad, movie and TV-news executives might share video or still-image content with peers or customers for a quick review prior to a deadline, said Stacey Wu, an analyst at Mobile Insights Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

Wu said that at least a few small companies, including Packet Video in San Diego and helloNetwork in New York, have told her of intentions to market video streaming wirelessly to corporate users, “but they haven’t gotten any traction yet.”

The value to a corporation of wireless video would not be the video content as much as the immediacy of wireless, Wu said. For example, a sales pitch on video could be distributed on a CD to an entire sales force in less than a week, which might be fast enough for that business purpose. By comparison, an airline mechanic might want to carry a handheld on a wireless LAN for a review of how to install a part in an aircraft, she said.

It would take at least 250K bit/sec. of bandwidth to get passably good video content, three analysts said. In the Florida trial, the wireless network offers 460K bit/sec. of bandwidth operating in the 700-MHz public safety band under an experimental 150-KHz license from the Federal Communications Commission.

“No private company can get access to that bandwidth unless they spend a lot or resort to a satellite network,” said analyst Ken Dulaney at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Becky Diercks, an analyst at Cahner’s In-Stat Group in Newton, Mass., said her research among public- and private-sector users shows limited interest in sharing still video images (pictures). Interest in full motion video also falls behind other wireless services, she said.

She noted that Motorola’s trial in Florida is only a field laboratory test and that while the bandwidth might be plentiful, it would be diminished in a real-world example with multiple users.

“I’d say there’s no business interest in wireless video today,” added Dulaney. “Ask yourself why no one uses those little pocket TVs. Not enough people like it.”

Charul Vyas, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., had a more positive view of business value. “There’s definitely consumer interest, but there’s also a lot of business applications that matter,” she said. Sending and receiving photos wirelessly was listed among the top three priorities for business users questioned in 16 focus groups of about 10 people each earlier this year, she said. The other two wireless applications ranking in the top three were wireless information on driving and traffic, and the ability to send and receive wireless e-mail with attachments, she said. Some wireless carriers are beginning to offer 2.5G network services with up to 144K bit/sec. capabilities, enough to support still images, she said.

Motorola’s Gorecki said there could be ready access to more bandwidth at lower cost once the FCC allocates spectrum in the 700-MHz band and sets standards for usage. These frequency bands now represent TV channels 63, 64, 68 and 69. “Who knows when that allocation might occur?” he said.