Cisco talks radio

Cisco recently announced technology and a business unit focused on integrating two-way radio, cellular, VoIP and other communications methods into an IP backbone.

The IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) consists of existing Cisco products and new server software that Cisco says will let public safety organizations and companies IP-enable two-way radio voice traffic and integrate the disparate radio infrastructures with other public safety or private organizations.

While initially focused on public safety and government users — patching together systems of separate police, fire and governmental organizations, for example — Cisco says the IPICS platform will appeal to a broad range of public and private enterprise users because the system also is capable of integrating disparate data and video signals with an IP infrastructure.

“IPICS is not a communications system in itself; it’s something that enables disparate communications systems out there to work together in an IP format,” says Brad Curran, an industry analyst with Frost and Sullivan who tracks government and military communications technology industries.

“After Hurricane Katrina, we saw what a mess communications were. You had a lot of outside agencies coming in and it was difficult for them to all communicate. Something like IPICS would have helped a lot.”

IPICS was developed by the newly formed Safety, Security Systems business unit.

Cisco is billing this effort as another of its emerging technology areas, similar to the launch in June of its Application Oriented Networking (AON) business unit.

At the time of that launch, Cisco CEO John Chambers said the company would announce a new emerging technology every quarter over its next fiscal year. (In Cisco-speak, emerging technologies are different to its six advanced technologies — enterprise VoIP, home networking, optical, security, storage networking and wireless LAN. Chambers has targeted each as an eventual billion-dollar revenue source).

IPICS software runs on a Linux-based server and provides operators with an application interface that lets them control all communications links on the network.

An IPICS server acts as a central switchboard for any type of communication that comes into a network. This can include two-way handheld and mobile radio devices, cell phones, push-to-talk mobile phones, traditional analogue and digital phones, as well as wired or wireless VoIP devices.

Radio equipment would terminate on an IP LAN via Cisco’s Land Mobile Radio (LMR) Gateway, a Cisco router module that converts analogue radio signals into packetized IP voice, and is currently deployed in public safety organizations. Cell phone handsets tie into IPICS via Cisco public switched telephone network and IP gateway equipment, used to link Cisco VoIP gear to carrier phone networks.

Once traffic is converted to IP, IPICS lets any device on the network connect with any other device, allowing IP phones and VoIP-enabled PDAs to call radios and cell phones. Administrators can set up users in push-to-talk groups with IPICS software, regardless of device type.

IPICS software uses XML messaging schemes to identify the types of communications devices managed by the system.

Public safety users have deployed Cisco gear to link their IP and radio networks, but the advancement with IPICS is the ability to link disparate radio, cell phone and other communications types under a single umbrella, says Shah Talukder, general manager of the Safety, Security Systems business unit.

“There are billions of dollars already invested in legacy radio equipment,” Talukder says. “We’re not saying, throw that away. Wherever there is IP, IPICS allows you to connect [existing] radio traffic to anywhere in the world.”

While radio is the first step of IPICS, down the line users will see integration of video and data into the system, Curran says. This could involve sending digitized maps, graphics or text data to workers in the field, as well as consolidating various kinds of analogue and digital video streams from multiple sources — such as security cameras — into IP.

As for how far Cisco can take this technology, analysts are optimistic.

“People may not really realize how many people use radios,” says Deb Mielke, managing director at Treillage Network Strategies. “It’s not just police and fire departments — there’s hospitals, trucking, taxis — any business involved in [mobility] or transportation.”

Users should expect to see more integration of Cisco’s IPICS technology along with WLAN and IP telephony, and its recent RFID and AON/XML initiatives, she says. “They’re the only guys with all the [tools] that can tie it all together.”

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