City of Ripon goes wireless

California municipality adopts holistic approach to mesh networking

A Northern California city will deploy a municipal wireless network in the next several weeks to enable secure, high speed voice and data communications among first responders and other city employees. The same network will support live streaming of surveillance video and monitoring of industrial computer systems.

Several cities have equipped their emergency responders with Motorola's IP-based, peer-to-peer communications technology. But Ripon city officials are taking it further, said Rick Rotondo, marketing director for Motorola's Mesh Networks Products Group.

Mesh networks are designed to be multihop systems in which any member device can transmit packets via the network. In Ripon, "we're finally starting to see people using the full potential of the system," Rotondo said.

Ripon public works officials are planning to use the mesh network to monitor data from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which collect data from sensors and machines and transmit them to a central computer.

"They have a lot of city-owned water wells and pump stations, and instead of sending a technician out once a week to each of these to look and log the information, they're thinking about connecting this SCADA equipment to the mesh and view this stuff in real time," Rotondo said.

The wireless mesh network has many built-in security functions that will prevent intrusions, he said.

Ripon Police Chief Richard Bull, who helped research, review and study many wireless technologies before recommending Motorola's 2.4 GHz wireless network, said the city will use the network when it deploys more than 20 surveillance cameras to monitor and investigate suspected criminal activity. The cameras will be placed at three truck stops on a major freeway, in city parks and at locations in the downtown area, among other places.

The city's cellular infrastructure couldn't handle large volumes of data. "For the things we wanted to do, there just wasn't enough bandwidth, plus it's very expensive," Bull said. "The more you push [data], the more you pay."

He said he estimates that use of the mesh system, for which the city will pay no recurring fees, will save the police department about $2,000 a month. City officials have identified several additional uses for the wireless network, including giving police officers in patrol cars access to law enforcement and court databases, allowing police and firefighters to access an incident command system during emergencies, and enabling officials to transmit geographic information system data about hazardous material sites, fire hydrant locations and commercial building plans.

"It's become a scalable backbone network, and you can use it for anything," said Craig Mathias, principal and founder of Farpoint Group, which analyzes wireless communications and mobile computing.

Mathias said more than 200 cities worldwide have deployed wireless networks. "There's really no other technique that's suitable for metro-scale deployment," he said. "The alternative is you would have to put wire in every building. That's a nonstarter. It would provide you with the best performance but at the highest cost."

Mathias said most cities will have wireless coverage in the next decade for public safety, consumer, economic development and operational uses such as monitoring SCADA systems.

Ripon, located between Modesto and Stockton, will use Motorola's mesh network technology to replace cellular data connections at a cost of about $554,000. The city will receive $75,000 in homeland security funding and has hired Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor for the mesh networks project.

Bull said he likes the system's easy expandability. It includes shoebox-sized wireless routers that can be mounted on utility poles, traffic lights or buildings that provide a source of electricity or solar power. The system enables non line-of-sight communications among devices and acts as a bridge to wired networks.

Motorola plans to offer a 4.9 GHz version. Bull said Ripon officials have been talking with officials in neighboring municipalities and communities about expanding the system to achieve voice and data communications interoperability. "Everybody wants there to be a guinea pig first," Bull said. "If this is successful, you're going to see a number of other agencies look at this. Our intent is to build a network that cities can opt in and out of."

Wi-Fi benefits

Officials in Ripon, Calif., plan to install a citywide broadband wireless network that will:

  • Allow police officers to access information in their patrol cars from federal, county and local law enforcement databases, including mug shots and fingerprints.
  • Enable public works officials to monitor supervisory control and data acquisition systems at city wells and pump stations in real time.
  • Give police real-time video surveillance capabilities for city parks, traffic locations and areas where criminal activity is suspected. The system will later add video connectivity to schools and businesses.
  • Give first responders and others access to mapping data related to infrastructure locations and police tactical plans for critical facilities such as schools.
  • Enable city officials to respond to residents' information and service requests via e-mail and other messaging systems.
  • Give police access to digital video camera systems in patrol cars. Fire, police and other government agencies will have access to a citywide automated vehicle-location system. In the future, the system will add voice over-IP capabilities, allow for expanded use of handheld devices and enable access to an incident command system for coordinating activities during emergencies.

— Dibya Sarkar

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