Most public-safety communications systems involve radio towers, specialized equipment, limited capacity and little or no data capability. But Silicon Valley-based PacketHop hopes to alter this landscape with its software-based, mobile mesh networking technology that is designed to provide scalable high-speed data communications between first responders using commercial, off-the-shelf devices.

PacketHop's technology differs from other data platforms in that it is software-based, meaning first responders from disparate public-safety agencies can be authenticated and quickly placed on the network during an emergency incident. This critical component for interoperability was displayed during a February exercise conducted by a coalition of 11 government organizations that form the Golden Gate Safety Network.

In that test, a high-speed data network over both land and water was established in about the same amount of time it would take to set up a mobile voice network at an incident, according to Michael Griffin, assistant chief for California Governor's Office of Emergency Services' law-enforcement branch. Adding users to the data network required only a quick software download to any off-the-shelf device that has an 802.11 card and uses a Microsoft operating system.

“We pre-provisioned some devices, but to prove that we could provision on the fly, we had a car from another department come to scene,” said Gregg Rowland, vice president of sales for PacketHop. “It took us three minutes to provision a unit that had never seen the network before.”

After the software download — something Rowland said could be done remotely while a first responder is in transit, if a connection is available — the device is authorized to be on the secure network, and unit leaders can monitor authenticated users' whereabouts on maps that update first responders' movements in real time.

As in mesh networks — an architecture first developed by the military to let troops communicate even if a base station was disabled by enemy attack — the PacketHop device becomes an active router in the network that can be used to route peer-to-peer data streams. If a given route is busy or the next device is deemed to be low on power, the device automatically seeks to route the data through another device.

“Because it's an ad hoc network, it provides an element of survivability,” Rowland said. “This allows you to have true communications between users, regardless whether they have towers or backhaul capability. That's important, because most of the traffic in an emergency is local traffic.”

Another key characteristic is scalability. While traditional radio networks strain under the burden of additional users as all available channels are used, a mesh network improves as each user joins the network, according to Rowland.

“The more people are on the network, the stronger the network becomes because that means there are more and more routes to flow data through,” he said.

Griffin said the GGSN exercise was a considerable success, proving that a high-speed mesh network can be deployed quickly and securely using off-the-shelf technology. Griffin said he even had another Wi-Fi network established nearby and ordered heavy use to determine if there would be interference issues. There were none, he said.

California has applied for a federal grant to fund another exercise of the mobile mesh technology featuring PacketHop's software, and Griffin said he knows at least one new aspect he wants to test.

“We did this all in an open-air environment with lots of line of sight,” Griffin said. “I would like to see how robust it is and how reliable it is in a building or some other crowded space.”

While the ad hoc nature of the mesh network means communications do not have to be transmitted through fixed locations, having a foundation of fixed sites is required to backhaul data elsewhere to give officials a “big picture” perspective of an incident or to allow round-the clock monitoring. Griffin said he believes permanent access points will be established at key locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, not all emergencies occur at public landmarks. Griffin said he hopes public safety eventually will be able to leverage existing commercial hot spots — for example, the 10,000 McDonald's restaurants and the 3000 Starbucks coffee shops scheduled to be equipped with Wi-Fi networks during the next year — when necessary.

“Public safety should be able to use [commercial hot-spot assets] as well as anybody else,” Griffin said.

Meanwhile, Rowland said PacketHop is scheduled to conduct its first beta rollouts during the fourth quarter, with plans calling for the product to be generally available in the first quarter of 2005. That rollout will be closely monitored by MobileTrax principal analyst Gerry Purdy, who said PacketHop is the only company he knows that has a software-based solution for mission-critical data, though some competitors claim to be developing similar platforms. PacketHop's ability to incorporate its “very promising” technology into a sound business plan will determine its success, he said.

“At this stage, they're doing some innovative things, but I'm not going to sit here and commend them too much until they have a product that's commercially available and some experience behind them,” Purdy said.

Although the current software provides only data communications, Rowland said PacketHop plans to include voice capability in future versions.

“Ultimately, VoIP eventually will replace LMR,” Rowland said, noting that commercial applications also are expected. “Our first software release is focused on delivering mission-critical data over any device. Then, the next thing we're going to do is VoIP.”