At the CTIA show in September, Reed Hundt, a senior advisor at management consulting company McKinsey and a former chairman at the US regulator, the FCC, threw down a challenge to the participating infrastructure providers: figure out a way in the post-Katrina climate to meld wireless devices and networks such that emergency responders can use them cohesively, nationwide, to improve communications and response times during disasters.

Many public safety radio networks are not interoperable with one another. So when an emergency requires the collaboration of multiple agencies and jurisdictions, communications must take place with each entity one at a time, if at all. Today, in many municipalities, even local fire and police departments cannot communicate directly. From a national perspective, attempting to tie local first responders to state emergency personnel, then to organisations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gets increasingly difficult.

According to a report done by the US National Task Force on
Interoperability, the public safety community has identified the following key issues that hamper public safety wireless communications today:

  • Incompatible and aging communications equipment
  • Limited and fragmented budget cycles and funding
  • Limited and fragmented planning and coordination
  • Limited and fragmented radio spectrum
  • Limited equipment standards.

Hundt suggested that the nationwide public safety network might have to serve and coordinate 8 million to 10 million emergency responders, support high levels of reliability and security, and enable ad-hoc networking. He mentioned municipal Wi-Fi mesh networks and setting aside a special spectrum in the 700MHz public safety band as possible technical options.

Doubts over Wi-Fi
Well-seasoned consultant Andy Seybold, president of Outlook4Mobility, who moderated the panel discussion at which Hundt spoke, snickered that "municipal Wi-Fi is its own national disaster," presumably because he has been known to equate the unlicensed nature of Wi-Fi (at least, 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi) with severe interference issues that he fears will not allow Wi-Fi to scale.

Meanwhile, from an organisational standpoint, the federal government this year established an umbrella program called Safecom. Safecom's purpose is to improve the public safety response among all levels of agencies, which includes 44,000 local and state agencies and more than 100 federal agencies, through more effective and efficient
interoperable wireless communications.

Pronto gets stuck in
Shortly after Hundt's plea, Pronto Networks announced it had signed up a slew of municipalities to connect into a common, nationwide broadband wireless network, in large part to serve public safety applications.

Coincidence? I think not! Reed sits on Pronto's board of directors, according to the company's Web site, and was quoted in Pronto's press
release announcing the effort, which it calls the UniFi Digital
Communities Grid.

Pronto, by the way, is in the business of offering operations support services (OSS), such as billing, settlement, security, provisioning and configuration, to public wireless LAN hot spot services. For the UniFi Grid effort, the company offers one free Network Services Controller to any municipality wishing to join.

The controller provides Wi-Fi access to the other networks connecting to the grid and supports 200 users. The controller is also the platform for the application services and OSS.

The service platform is the glue that binds together Wi-Fi (802.11), WiMAX (802.16), mesh topologies and public safety network infrastructures at the lower network layers, making all communications and services function in a common way across the local municipal networks the various cities choose to deploy.

At least 43 municipalities in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Texas are already signed on. Participating municipalities have agreed to give reciprocal access to all government workers from participating communities. Cities have the option to charge for access to generate additional revenue or can opt to allow visitors to roam for free on their network.

Pronto says it has committed to invest up to $15 million in products and services to connect up to 500 municipalities in the next 18 months. The company's presentation materials indicate support for hierarchical control of emergency policies, connecting city and state public safety organizations to federal organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Other applications include enabling inter-municipality roaming services to citizens, automated meter reading (AMR), traffic and pedestrian control, video surveillance, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications for water and wastewater treatment. They are provided by software development and systems integration partners Cellnet (AMR and SCADA), Cross Current (public safety and computer-aided dispatch) and Lexis (wireless parking management systems and equipment).

And Cisco comes along too
Pronto isn't alone. In the wake of Hurricane Wilma's wrath, we now have another emerging alternative: the Cisco Internet Protocol Interoperability and Communications System (IPICS), which the company publicly demonstrated recently. IPICS will IP-enable two-way radio communications, then, via a special server, integrate it with other voice communications and, eventually, data and video networking.

In addition to its potential for creating a public safety "network of networks," the company also touts IPICS for applications in the transportation/logistics, retail and
emergency healthcare industries -- anywhere where closed two-way radio networks currently exist. The idea is to tie existing networks together rather than having governments and enterprises upgrade all their radios and equipment to common frequencies so they can intercommunicate.

In the Cisco model, devices that don't already use IP plug into Cisco IP gateways; for example, cell phones with or without push-to-talk capabilities ultimately connect to a Cisco PSTN/voice-over-IP gateway, and two-way radios communicate to a Cisco LAN Mobile Radio Gateway. Once all communications are IP-enabled, the Cisco IPICS Linux-based LAN server takes over, functioning as the switchboard that allows disparate devices to communicate with one another.

Cisco has mentioned integrating global positioning systems, sensors and video surveillance systems into the IPICS platform.

Eventually, for example, once IPICS evolves, perhaps video cameras on a fire marshal's helmet communicating with local surveillance cameras in a burning building would allow him or her to direct emergency personnel on the scene as to what is happening inside and prevent disaster.

At this juncture, no timeframe for commercial IPICS availability or pricing have been announced.