Oregon city builds safety net

MeshNetworks, Inc.

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By early April, a southwestern Oregon city will be among a handful of municipalities worldwide with an IP-based, peer-to-peer communications network that can function without the supporting infrastructure.

Medford city officials hope the high-speed, interoperable wireless system will eventually extend to rural areas throughout the 2,800-square-mile Jackson County. The more users, the stronger the system, they said.

"So rather than discourage people when they come onto a system because it gets bogged down, you encourage them to come on," said Deputy Police Chief Ron Norris, "like the hospitals, the ambulances, the fire departments, the public works, because the system becomes more robust and functions better with more users."

Since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, interoperable communication has been a top national priority, although law enforcement officials have been calling for the technology for decades. The need for voice interoperability has also expanded to video and data.

The ad hoc peer-to-peer, or mesh, architecture was developed by MeshNetworks Inc., based in Maitland, Fla., which commercialized the technology developed by the Defense Department for battlefield communications. Some local officials are taking notice. Besides Medford, it's also being deployed in Garland, Texas; Florence, Italy; a city in Florida; and another in Great Britain, which at this time cannot be identified, said Rick Rotondo, the company's vice president of technical marketing. The network includes a fixed infrastructure for installation throughout an area. For instance, wireless routers about the size of a shoe box can be mounted on utility poles, billboards, traffic lights or buildings where there is electricity, or they can be attached to a solar power source.

The devices enable communications among individual devices and intelligence access points beyond the line of sight. Individual devices and access points act as transitions from the wireless network to the wired infrastructure and provide a maximum burst data rate of 6 megabits/sec. The fixed routers balance traffic within the system, bypassing network congestion or node failures so users can communicate with one another seamlessly.

But if that infrastructure becomes inoperable, then the system's users, in effect, become conduits. Whether they have individual mobile devices connected to the system via a wireless modem card or drive around in vehicles with a mounted modem, they act as hopping points within the mesh architecture. "So it acts as a relay network; you are the network," Rotondo said. "The beauty of a mesh system is that you don't try to cover great distances in one hop."

Mesh networking could be one of the most important technologies this decade, said Craig Mathias, a principal with the Farpoint Group, which specializes in mobile computing. However, he's not sure it will solve radio interoperability problems. "There is nothing special about meshes that would make them especially useful in solving this problem other than perhaps their suitability to rapid deployment across large areas," he said.

City and company officials said the technology requires little or no training and will pay for itself over time. Medford is replacing the discontinued Cellular Digital Packet Data network with the mesh system.

The initial deployment, by Viasys Corp., throughout the 24-square-mile city will cost about $700,000, including about $500,000 from a federal homeland security grant. Cost will be a factor for Medford in expanding the system.

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