Project MESA, or Mobility for Emergency and Safety Applications, finally received the vendor support it has been seeking the last four years. A Project MESA working group meeting in Boston in April resulted in five new proposals brought forth by manufacturers as potential technologies for the next generation of public-safety communications systems.

EADS, Harris, Motorola, Qualcomm (and its partner Chinese vendor ZTE) and Thales all submitted proposals to meet Project MESA's statement of requirements (SOR) that was developed in 2002 and includes the goal of creating a “systems of systems” approach that will match and exceed the capabilities of today's 3G commercial systems in a technology-neutral way.

“The vendor proposals included ways to coordinate and leverage the latest networking standards to ensure that ‘incident area networking technologies’ can work seamlessly in these highly demanding situations,” said Philip Kidner, chairman of the Systems Specification Group with Project MESA.

The technology proposals all leverage commercial technology and include CDMA 1xEV-DO, wideband-CDMA (W-CDMA), variations of 802.11 and WiMAX, along with satellite technologies.

Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department and a member of the SAFECOM Advisory Committee, called the proposals a major paradigm shift. “This demonstrates that the barriers of public versus private systems have been broken, allowing the public-safety community to choose the technology platform that best meets its needs.”

Project MESA was launched nearly six years ago as a collaborative effort between the U.S. standards-making body Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI) to identify and create common specifications for a next-generation public-safety network. The project since has struggled to attract interest from vendors, partly because vendors haven't seen a tremendous marketplace for such equipment and partly because a lack of spectrum identified for next-generation public-safety systems makes it problematic for vendors to craft a business plan. Now vendors are finding they can leverage their economies of scale in the commercial sector and port that over to public safety with a few tweaks.

Manufacturer participation changed after Kidner warned last October that if vendors didn't come forward with detailed proposals during April's meeting, Project MESA would close down the process and move the systems development work back to the U.S. and Europe, where individual standards bodies would work independently and merely exchange information with each other. Kidner's warning apparently resonated with the industry as more than 50 participants from the U.S., Canada, Europe and China attended the meeting.

EADS and Thales are pushing what is known as the WIDENS project, a two-year cooperative research and development project involving European industries and universities. The project was supported by the European Commission and ended in January. The overall objective of the WIDENS project was to design, create a prototype and validate a high data rate, rapidly deployable and scalable wireless ad-hoc communication system for future public-safety, emergency and disaster applications by reusing 802.11 and 802.16 standards.

Harris argued that satellite communications should be an integral part of any next-generation public-safety network because it offers nationwide coverage, and the Ka band offers higher data rates. For instance, the network could incorporate transportable VSAT to create a survivable public network via satellite. Services such as that offered by Iridium could be used in cases of remote incidents.

As expected, Motorola's proposal focused on technology it is already offering for the 4.9 GHz band for broadband ad-hoc networking with wider-area applications as the subject of further analysis. Motorola has suggested a combination of narrowband, wideband and broadband services should be used in varying combinations by public safety for an extended timeframe.

CDMA innovator Qualcomm proposed a select group of technologies that would work seamlessly together to meet public-safety network needs that would be implemented as a separate private network or as an extension of existing commercial networks. Wide-area coverage could be based on either commercial CDMA 1xEV-DO or W-CDMA, while incident coverage would be supplied by 802.11-based networks. Finally, remote area coverage would be handled by satellite services.

Partner ZTE, a CDMA vendor based in China that recently announced its entrance into the U.S. market, gave a presentation about the company's Global open Trunking architecture, or GoTa, which it calls the “new generation” digital trunking system using CDMA that is designed for PMR/PAMR. The GoTa system has been put into commercial or pilot use with many operators in 20 countries, with a capacity of 500,000 lines, ZTE said.

Interestingly, Qualcomm did not propose technology that was based on orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) technology. The company purchased Flarion Technologies, the leading developer of OFDMA and inventor of wideband spread-spectrum technology known as Flash-OFDM.

The District of Columbia deployed a successful pilot network based on Flash-OFDM in 2004 in the 700 MHz band. Flash-OFDM is extremely spectrally efficient. The technology divides spectrum into a number of equally spaced tones or frequencies, which ensures there is no interference between users on the same cell. The IP-based technology is spectrum-agnostic, can operate in interference-riddled spectrum and is able to transmit data at peak rates of 3 Mb/s, with average throughputs of 1.5 Mb/s.

Qualcomm did not answer requests for an interview.

Project MESA members expect additional proposals to come prior to the organization's next meeting in October in Nice, France. With a significant number of proposals in hand, TIA and ETSI can then begin the standardization process and whittle down the proposals and combine them where they make sense to receive a consensus, said Craig Jorgensen, chair of Project MESA's service specification group.

EADS/Thales WIDENS project
Harris Satellite technology
Motorola Wi-Fi ad hoc networking
Qualcomm Wide area coverage: CDMA
Incident coverage: 802.11x