Getting street cred
Over the course of 2007, wireless mesh provider Firetide has established itself as the go-to partner for municipalities, big and small, looking to create wireless mesh networks that can be integrated with hard-wired networks and provide everything from video surveillance to voice and data communications infrastructure.
"If you look at muniwireless.com's latest report," said Firetide's chief executive officer Bo Larsson, "54 cities deployed mesh networks last year, and we did 48 public safety mesh networks just last year. So if their numbers are correct and we are correct then we have a 90 percent market share."
He acknowledges that it's unlikely the numbers are that good, but it still makes sense that when Larsson talks, integrators looking to tap into the municipal market should listen. "I think the market is going to grow 50 percent year over year through 2010," he said. "And I think the video surveillance part of that may grow 60 to 80 percent year over year."
In his mind, the only thing keeping the market from growing even faster is lack of visibility and confusion about the market. "We know the equipment is good enough, we know the channel really likes the equipment, and we know the customers really like the performance," he reasoned, "so the key is getting the word out, that is completely evident."
Part of getting the word out is differentiating between wireless mesh networks and municipal wi-fi deployments that have been criticized for over-promising and under-delivering. Ballyhooed public wireless projects in San Francisco, Houston and Philadelphia, for example, haven't been funded well, have been targeted at delivering wireless Internet access to the consumer, and have failed to beat cable and DSL options for price and performance.
Wireless mesh networks deployed for public-safety purposes, however, are not meant to provide Internet access to consumers, but rather serve as a communications hub for city staff, providing voice, data and video to whomever most readily needs it.
"There are a couple of business models," explained Mike Fabbri, director of data solutions operations at Motorola, Firetide's primary competitor with its Motomesh product, though Motorola does not use the channel to sell to municipalities. "You can look at Providence, what LA has done, Plano, Texas--these are cities that deployed private, government-owned and managed networks to deploy video and all the other things police and government employees needed. Then you've got a city like Philly, where Earthlink deployed a 2.4 [megahertz] wi-fi system and everyone shares it. I think there's a place for public-private sharing, for cooperation, but for public safety, they should use a licensed spectrum. Having 4.9 [megahertz] for public safety avoids or minimizes any sort of interference. Imagine watching video of a situation on 2.4 just as somebody downloads an Mp3 at Starbucks and the picture goes out. They need to be sure they can get what they want on a shared system."
Further, a mesh system provides significantly more bandwidth for the buck over wi-fi installation. With mesh, said Fabri, you can deploy mobile video sharing: "They can take any of those camera streams and push or pull that to the officer's vehicle. It ensures that the officers don't show up with too much or too little force for a situation, for example."
It's a capability that produces endorsements like this: "Our Firetide wireless video surveillance system considerably increases the Phoenix Police Department's situational awareness, response time, and ability to protect the public," said Chris Jensen, a detective in the city's Drug Enforcement Bureau. "Before we had this system, an incident around the corner could easily escalate into a larger problem before it was even detected. With 360-degree cameras, trained operators are able see incidents as they occur. Our Firetide video network acts as a force multiplier."
Not only does the mobile video attract public safety departments, but there's another major selling point that makes mesh significantly more attractive than fiber, its primary competition: price.
"It's the expense, definitely," said Buddy Harkey, an integrated systems engineer with integrator Tri-Tronics. "The wireless equipment might be an additional cost on the job, but then you factor in the cost of the labor, the cost of the trenching, construction, it can get really costly having to run wires."
Harkey helped install a surveillance system for Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where they're currently only bringing all the video back to a central monitoring center at the police station.
However, "They're working on making it so the cops driving around will be able to pick up the video in the cars," he said, "that's where they want to go."
Other small cities that have made a commitment to a mesh network include Glendale, Colo., and Elko, Nev. "It doesn't really matter how big the installation is," Larsson said. "Whenever you have a situation where you need infrastructure for video surveillance, mesh is reliable. Plus, you probably have a 10-to-one cost difference on the equipment alone. And then you have all the disruption laying fiber causes."
Nor, he said, do you have to be a large integrator to work in the space. "We have 500 integrators right now that push our product," Larsson said, and Firetide has distribution through ADI, Anixter and ScanSource, to name a few.
Small integrators can either acquire a skillset for wireless network deployments and do all of the engineering themselves, "but we also offer that as a service," Larsson said. "If they have a network they want to deploy, we can do the design for them, so it's not necessary."
In the case of the Avrio Group, which deployed the Glendale network with Firetide, IP networks are what it hangs its hat on. Mark Jules, Avrio Group's president of business development, said, "The solutions we design and deploy for public safety agencies need to be extremely robust, highly secure and capable of being scaled easily and efficiently."
His company, like Firetide, has succeeded with wireless mesh and is committed to the municipal public safety market.