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They are also self-healing, meaning they simply reconfigure themselves if any node is lost, says Rick Rotondo, MeshNetworks’ vice president of technical marketing. Consequently, no single node is indispensable, as a central tower is in a cell network. Mesh networks can also route data around bottlenecks to ensure fast transmission, and their range of coverage can easily be extended by attaching additional routers to traffic lights and lamp posts. The Garland system offers coverage across more than 150 square kilometers.

“To the guy on the street, [high-speed data in vehicles] is going to make a huge difference,” says Joe Hanna, a consultant in Dallas, TX, and a past president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials. In addition to Garland, MeshNetworks is installing its system in Medford, OR, and has several trials and commercial deployments under way with other cities in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

While sharing data among emergency responders is relatively simple, sharing voice communications is actually far more difficult, since different radios are hardwired to transmit and receive at specific frequencies using different communications protocols. One solution could be software radio, in which radios store programs that automatically switch frequencies and communications protocols as needed to communicate with other devices. Cambridge, MA, startup Vanu, for example, is demonstrating a Compaq iPAQ handheld computer equipped with radio software that police or fire officials can use to communicate directly with different public-safety radios on any frequency between 100 and 500 megahertz. Meanwhile, Thales Communications in Clarksburg, MD, will target state and local agencies with a smaller, lighter version of a software radio it now sells to the military. “I think software radio will be the ultimate solution to the interoperability problem,” says John Powell, a public-safety technology consultant to the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

It’s unclear how readily software radio or mesh networking will be adopted by fire and police departments across the country, which often struggle simply to keep their existing equipment from becoming obsolete. And beyond the technical and financial challenges, there is still the hurdle of overcoming traditions. Different agencies have historically resisted cooperating with each other when buying radios, although that is beginning to change, says Craig Jorgensen, who is working with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and other groups to develop a standard for radios for emergency workers. Working together, Powell says, public agencies may help push to market technologies that could prevent a tragic communications crash like the one that occurred on September 11. But in the end, finding a solution will depend on how well the different officials listen to each other.

Connecting First Responders
MeshNetworks (Maitland, FL) Hardware for wireless broadband mesh networks
NexGen City (Richardson, TX) Hardware for wireless broadband mesh networks
PacketHop (Belmont, CA) Software-based mobile mesh networks for interoperable data communications
Raytheon JPS Communications (Raleigh, NC) Patching devices to allow different radios and telephones to talk to each other
Thales Communications (Clarksburg, MD) Software radio
Tropos Networks (San Mateo, CA) Mesh networks using Wi-Fi wireless broadband
Vanu (Cambridge, MA) Software radio

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