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For cops and firefighters, being wireless isn’t just about walkie-talkies anymore. An increasing number of emergency workers rely on high-speed wireless data networks while on the job. But many of these networks are set up in a hub-and-spoke configuration: if a hub, such as a wireless base station, goes down, the network fails. This summer, Belmont, CA’s PacketHop will release software designed to prevent that type of failure. The software enables standard Wi-Fi-equipped laptops, PDAs, and other devices to form their own “mesh” networks and share video, photos, messages, and location data. With the technology, emergency workers at a disaster site can “set up a network on the fly without the need for infrastructure,” says Michael Howse, the startup’s president and CEO.

In a mesh network, each device operates as a node, capable of routing data to several other devices on the network – and the network survives even if several of its nodes fail or disappear. With PacketHop’s software running on their portable devices, public-safety officials can, for example, view video streams from vehicle-mounted cameras. They can also instant-message each other, annotate or draw on images or maps in real time, and track each other’s locations, provided that their mobile devices have GPS chips. The system can’t handle voice data yet, so first responders who use it will still need handheld radios to talk to each other. But Howse says that, by providing an alternative means of communication, the mesh network should prevent the radios from getting overloaded during a major incident like a riot or a terrorist attack.

Menlo Park, CA-based nonprofit research institute SRI International spun out PacketHop in early 2003 to commercialize research that originated in a U.S. Department of Defense-funded project. The company has since secured $15 million in venture financing. PacketHop is now preparing to ship its products to several federal, state, and municipal law-enforcement and firefighting agencies.

Howse sees Motorola, which got into mesh networks late last year through the acquisition of a small company called MeshNetworks, as his main competitor. “Motorola has huge market presence and access to markets,” says Peter Stanforth, formerly chief technology officer of MeshNetworks and now a vice president and director of technology at Motorola. “It would have taken us forever to get that.”

Indeed, it will be a challenge for PacketHop to compete with a company that has such a long history of selling radios in the public-safety market. But because the startup’s software works with any standard Wi-Fi-enabled device, its customers can shop around for the best prices in Wi-Fi hardware. This is very appealing to public-safety agencies spending tax dollars, says Glen Nash, the chair of the technology committee of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council and a senior telecommunications engineer with the state of California. “It’s important to be able to purchase equipment from multiple sources,” says Nash. Motorola customers have to buy all of their mesh-networking equipment – hardware and software – from Motorola.

Nonetheless, both companies will have to work to convince public-safety officials to adopt mesh networking. “We’re at the bottom of the learning curve” when it comes to new wireless technologies, says Nash, and the public-safety market is a cautious one. Nash, for one, is concerned about the security and reliability of mesh networks. PacketHop, however, hopes to show that reliability is precisely the advantage that its technology offers.

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