If there is one thing that the public safety and public utility sectors have in common, it's dealing with aging mission-critical communications equipment that has been cobbled together and enhanced over the years in a patchwork manner in an attempt to serve users' evolving needs.

This situation has paved the way for non-traditional wireless players in both of these sectors to fill the gap concerning mission-critical, broadband data.

For example, Rivada Networks has emerged as a public safety mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) of sorts, signing lease agreements with commercial mobile operators across the country to patch together a wireless system that has the interoperability, redundancy, reliability and broadband services needed by first responders. The service lets first responders use their everyday commercial devices, such as BlackBerrys and Treos, for emergency situations.

“We allow our clients to convert over using our regular day-to-day services that are preregistered on [our system],” said Bob Duncan, senior vice president of government services for Rivada. “That means first responders can take their BlackBerrys to work that day and before dinner time be dispatched to an ice storm. They take what they left the house with, and it works on a private network and is recognized as exclusively first responder.”

The Louisiana Army National Guard recently signed a contract with Rivada for such a system. (See “La. Guard takes unusual migration path,” MRT January, page 16.) For normal voice and data communications, Rivada resells CDMA-based services provided by Sprint Nextel. The genesis of the $600,000 contract occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Rivada — working with the Army's Northern Command — deployed a private cell phone network for the National Guard that also provided interoperable connections to state and local police LMR networks though an IP gateway.

The system is expected to go live in March. About 1000 officers will receive the devices. A major responsibility for Rivada in this deal is to ensure that adequate infrastructure exists for these officers — who will have command-and-control responsibility should a disaster strike — to continue using the same voice and data devices they use daily. To meet that responsibility, Rivada will deploy its Interoperable Communications Extension System (ICES) that consists of cellular, satellite and LMR technologies, all of which leverage commercial off-the-shelf equipment.

“No agency can afford lots of money on infrastructure, and our budget would not support us building our own infrastructure,” said Lt. Col. Ron Johnson. “We already had cell phones, so instead of just paying for BlackBerry service, we're also able to ensure it's available in emergencies with priority access. We're also taking advantage of the fact that Rivada stays current with the technology it develops. … We don't have the expertise or the time to do that.”

In some areas, Rivada's partnerships with commercial operators turn into significant win-wins for both the operator and public safety entity. For instance, Rivada has been able to encourage operators to roll out CDMA-based EV-DO Rev. A technology in places where, on a commercial basis alone, it just wouldn't be feasible to do so. However, with guaranteed revenue coming from public safety in these areas, operators have more incentive to roll out such services — likely many years sooner than anticipated.

Rivada's leadership comes from people who have been in the public safety trenches and have seen how quickly and completely communications can break down when a devastation-level event occurs. Duncan, for example, came from the Coast Guard. He was in charge of the Gulf Coast region when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006.

“It shaped my perception about what needs to be done,” Duncan said. “The president talked to me directly, and he needed data on what was happening. What I really needed to have was something to take off my belt, take a picture and [send] it off to the Homeland Operations Center.”

Greater Utility

Similarly, Arcadian Networks two years ago saw a need in the rural utility industry — electric, water, gas, and oil and gas exploration — for reliable, wireless IP-based broadband communications systems to remotely monitor assets in the field and eventually leverage smart systems that would be able to conduct tasks ranging from remote meter reading to managing electricity consumption.

“Traditionally, gas and electric companies have had two options: Build their own by purchasing the equipment and assuming the risk of operating and maintaining the network, or contract with commercial carriers, which don't have the appreciation for the latency and bandwidth requirements these companies have,” said Joseph Zarb, vice president of marketing for Arcadian

More often than not, utility companies are dealing with 30-year-old — or older — hub-and-spoke configurations consisting of point-to-point links for proprietary, single-application uses.

Arcadian's role is that of a carrier willing to build a customized network to meet the specific needs of particular utilities. Utilities pay Arcadian a fixed monthly fee, but only after the company purchases the equipment upfront and builds the system according to specific service level agreements that guarantee the necessary bandwidth and availability. To date, Arcadian has raised $90 million in capital, with Goldman Sachs serving as the lead investor.

Arcadian builds its systems using the highly coveted 700 MHz spectrum it acquired from a spectrum holding company. It bought the spectrum on the cheap because it covers rural areas across 30 states, spanning from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, near the Canadian border and in parts of the Southeast.

“Instead of focusing on buying spectrum where a large concentration of people resided, we bought spectrum were there is a large population of assets,” Zarb said. “The ratio of assets per person in rural America is significantly higher.”

Arcadian incorporates a number of technologies in its systems, ranging from pre-WiMAX, IP-based fixed wireless broadband systems and dropping down to 802.11-based technology used to create mesh networks that enable metering applications.

Great River Energy, an energy cooperative that covers two-thirds of the state of Minnesota, partnered with Arcadian in April 2006. The network covers 56,000 square miles, using about 60 towers that each cover a 20-mile radius.

“Our communications network was developed over two or three technologies, with whatever best technology fit at the time,” said Jim Jones, head of IT for Great River Energy. “We had designed a network that at least covered the primary loops and corridors. We put up fiber optics and some digital microwave. That was basically the backbone. The issue after that was: How do we get the wireless last mile?”

Great River now uses the Arcadian network for wireless metering and data retrieval, information it uses to troubleshoot sites before they go down.

With utilities as anchor tenants, Zarb said Arcadian is ideally suited to help public safety with its urgent communications needs. Accordingly, the company has been talking with public safety entities about their 700 MHz deployment plans, offering sites for collocation, and is in discussions with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to provide fixed wireless broadband applications such as remote video.

Leveraging utility assets for public safety benefit makes a lot of sense, given the symbiotic relationship of the two sectors, Zarb said.

“When there is a critical situation, who are the first entities first responders want to work with? Electric utilities and hospitals. When there is a blackout in the area, first responders need to talk to the utilities to get power back up.”