Wireless Bounces Back
Denver police officers in 35 patrol cars are using laptop computers to test a mobile wireless computer network. Each laptop has a special modem card to enable the computer to log onto the wireless system by way of a citywide installation of 2,000 transceivers the size of shoeboxes mounted on utility poles. The so-called “pole-tops” form a checkerboard or mesh network capable of moving signals around line-of-sight obstructions. The pole-tops communicate with 28 wired-access points, which, in turn, are hardwired to a single network interface facility connected to the Internet. “To maintain data security, we have set up a virtual private network (VPN) through which authorized users can log into the city and county safety network,” says Sara Harmer, network services manager for the Denver Police.
The patrolling officers use the system to pull up pictures of children for Amber Alerts, to check license, registration and background information of traffic violators, to call up mug shots and to download other information from the police network. “The graphic capabilities alone are a huge help,” says Lieutenant John Pettinger, commander of the Denver Police Computer Help and Information Planning (CHIP) Bureau.
Making the system possible is a mobile wireless network previously left for dead after the dot-com bust. Installed in the late 1990s by a company called Metricom, the micro cellular data network (MCDN) — trade-named Ricochet — offers police departments and other public safety agencies a higher-speed alternative to cellular digital packet data (CDPD) networks, the current standard in mobile wireless technology. Recent business moves may make it possible for more than a dozen other major cities also to restart dormant MCDN networks.
Pilot testing by the Denver Police Department is earning rave reviews. “It’s much faster than CDPD,” Pettinger says. “I am easily getting 128K, about eight times faster than CDPD.”
Pettinger recently put Denver’s Ricochet network through its paces during a simulated terrorist event at the old Mile High Stadium. The event mocked up an explosion that destroyed part of the stadium causing mass casualties. In response, police, fire and other public safety agency personnel converged on the stadium. Equipped with a laptop and a Ricochet connection, Pettinger worked in the command center and provided informational support to officers on the scene. During the event, Pettinger used the system to acquire hard data about symptoms related to biological weapons by tapping public safety files located in Denver, Washington D.C., and other sites around the country. “Because CDPD systems are too slow, you usually assign two or three officers using telephones to reach out to others at fixed positions to gather information,” explains Pettinger. “With the Ricochet system, I was able to get the information directly and much more quickly.”
During the late 1990s, Metricom spent $1.5 billion to build MCDN Ricochet networks in Denver, San Diego, and 15 other major metropolitan areas across the country, including the Bay area, Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington, D.C. The massive capital spending combined with the stock market bust sent the company into bankruptcy in August of 2001. During Chapter 13 proceedings, Denver attempted to auction the Metricom equipment installed in the city to cover a tax lien. When no buyers appeared, Denver took possession of the equipment.
In November of 2001, Denver-based Aerie Networks Inc. purchased the remaining Metricom assets for $8.25 million. At the same time, Aerie offered a deal to Denver under which the city would turn over the pole-top and other installed network equipment in exchange for 1,000 modems and 22 years of free service. Under the deal, Aerie re-started the network and began supplying Denver with wireless MCDN service. A similar deal was struck with the City of San Diego.
Shortly thereafter, Aerie changed its name to Ricochet Networks Inc.
Just last month, YDI Wireless Inc., Falls Church, Va., purchased Ricochet Networks. YDI designs wireless data systems and provides wireless data equipment. Now a wholly owned subsidiary of YDI, Ricochet hopes to restart a number of the existing metropolitan networks cities around the country. “About half of the cities with original Ricochet deployments have made inquiries,” says Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of YDI.
Does Ricochet plan to build networks in new cities? “We’re focused on established networks right now,” continues Fitzgerald. “But we will do greenfield installations, too. The only caveat is that we won’t repeat mistakes made with this technology in the past. A deployment must have an economic model that works.”