Providence unveils mesh network

Providence, R.I., this week launched a $2.3 million mesh network initially aimed at public safety.

The network will let police, firefighters and other emergency employees file reports from the field and access information such as suspect profiles, mug shots and building blueprints. The city obtained funding for the network through grants from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Motorola is deploying the mesh network with Scientel Wireless as its systems integration subcontractor.

Charles Hewitt, Providence’s chief information officer, said the mesh network aims to enable first responders to spend more time in the field “delivering the primary mission of their departments” and less time doing paperwork at headquarters.

Providence is the first state capital to install a citywide mesh network, according to Rick Rotondo, director of marketing for Motorola’s Mesh Networks Product Group.

The city’s mesh network consists of 400 wireless nodes – routers and access points, Rotondo said. The nodes are attached to utility poles, streetlights and buildings. Access points serve as gateways to wired networks. An access point may use wireless backhaul to a point of presence or take advantage of a building’s Ethernet or other network connection.

About 24 police cars and three fire department command vehicles are equipped with mesh network technology. The city plans to equip all police cars and fire trucks with the technology.

Providence’s mesh network relies on Motorola’s Mesh Enabled Architecture , rather than Wi-Fi. MEA uses a protocol originally developed for battlefield communication, Rotondo said. The protocol is designed for mobility and use at high speeds. “Thirty, 40 miles per hour is really where you start losing Wi-Fi connection,” he explained.

Rotondo described mesh networks, such as the Providence installation, as self-forming, self-healing, self-balancing systems that depend on numerous distributed nodes spread throughout a city. Providence’s deployment also supports ad-hoc mesh networking in which client devices such as MEA radios can form a network, without routers or access points.

MEA’s multihopping capability lets clients’ devices form a network, as each MEA radio acts as a router/repeater for the other devices in the network, according to Motorola.

First responders outside the city's mesh network can “start forming their own mesh networks among themselves without any predeployed infrastructure,” Rotondo said.

The city reviewed deployments in other jurisdictions before pursuing its own mesh network. Hewitt said city officials visited Buffalo, Minn., to look at that city’s installation. Providence also conducted due diligence by phone with other small towns that had deployed mesh networks.

Hewitt advised other cities considering mesh networks to allow sufficient time for systems engineering, namely identifying where routers will be placed and determining how they will be mounted. For example, Providence planned to attach a node to the chimney of a city-owned building, but found the chimney unable to support the specified load, Hewitt said. The chimney had to be repaired before attaching the access point.

Hewitt said Providence’s wireless mesh network runs separately from Rhode Island Wireless Innovation Networks, a border-to-border broadband wireless initiative. But he said the IP-based networks should achieve interoperability at the application level, if that became desirable.

Public safety may not be the last stop for Providence's mesh deployment. Rotondo said municipal customers tend to extend mesh networks to "other aspects of running a city" in time.

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