US city unveils wireless for public safety

City officials in Providence, Rohde Island, unveiled a US$2.3 million (C$2.5) wireless mesh network on Tuesday that is already being used by police and fire vehicles for access to data for public safety.

Three fire command vehicles and 24 police cars are already connected to the mesh network, which includes 450 mesh wireless routers from Motorola Inc., Providence CIO Charlie Hewitt said in an interview.

As many as 100 to 200 vehicles will eventually be connected, offering quick access to online records on criminal suspects, as well as mug shots and even building blueprints, Hewitt said.

The system can support video transmissions but has not yet been enabled to do that.

A separate wireless network is used for voice communications, partly to add redundancy in case of an emergency, he said.

The city plans to expand the network for use by public works and other municipal employees, including building inspectors, in the next year or so. There are no plans to use the network for a public wireless system, although a separate nonprofit group is working on a statewide wireless network for economic development purposes, Hewitt said.

Police and fire users have a rugged 15-in. monitor in each of their vehicles that can be used to access city records or for Web browsing, if needed. The underlying network is not Wi-Fi wireless, although it still operates in the 2.4-GHz wireless band, Hewitt said.

Motorola refers to the technology as Mesh Network Architecture, and Providence chose it for its ability to provide dynamic routing should a wireless router become disabled.

For example, if a car knocks down a pole holding a wireless router, the system can use the next closest router to forward a data stream.

Providence issued a request for proposals more than a year ago, but Motorola was the only vendor to bid on a network that the city could run privately. The system was bought with money from a series of federal grants, including funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to a statement from Mayor David Cicilline.

In the statement, Fire Chief David Costa said firefighters will be able to use the system to download data about hazardous materials in a building, as well as floor plans and other structural details.

Operation of the network has been nearly flawless in tests, Hewitt said, noting that the network design and implementation was simpler than construction problems city officials ran into with attaching the routers.

The city had to design and contract out nearly every wireless router attachment, because the shoebox-size routers must withstand hurricane winds. Originally, the city wanted to attach the devices to public schools and other public buildings; it later found that such a move was involved and expensive and placed the hardware on locations rented from a utility pole provider.

“The construction on the project is what took us the most time,” Hewitt said.

Providence began looking into the wireless mesh system when it learned that an older wireless network, running over Cellular Digital Packet Data, would be terminated. That network was terminated in February, and in the interim the city has been using Verizon Wireless’ EV-DO, or Evolution Data Optimized, system, he said. The CDPD throughput was about 19.2Kbit/sec., compared with 300Kbit/sec. or more with the mesh network.

Once the 450 wireless routers through Providence receive data input from vehicles in the field, the data travels over 50 separate point-of-sight routers back to the city’s data centre.

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