Project MESA, which stands for Mobility for Emergency and Safety Applications, was launched nearly six years ago as a collaborative effort between the U.S. and Europe public-safety sectors to identify and create common specifications for the next generation of first-responder communications systems. With progress being sluggish at best, a Project MESA working group meeting this month in Boston could determine whether the effort will die should vendors fail to step up with technology proposals soon.

“We, as users, have gotten to a point where we can't do anymore without input from vendors,” said Philip Kidner, chairman of MESA's systems specification group.

Project MESA — named after the place where the initiative was ratified, in Mesa, Ariz. — is a partnership between U.S. standards-making body Telecommunications Industry Association and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. It has offered a highly detailed statement of requirements (SOR) since 2002. Specifically, the SOR defines user needs for the transport and distribution of rate-intensive data, high-resolution digital voice, infrared video and digital voice for both service-specific and general applications.

The project's technical specification group has been mapping existing capabilities and gaps with the goal of creating a “system of systems” approach that will match and perhaps exceed the capabilities of today's Internet and commercial 3G systems. MESA specification development is taking a technology-neutral approach, which means resulting implementations could involve private and/or commercial equipment and systems, along with new technologies still under development.

It has been a long and frustrating process for MESA participants. Since the project's ratification, members have met every six months to coordinate programs and activities and to review documents for approval. Between meetings, members have coordinated specification development and other activities primarily during phone conferences and via e-mail. Although manufacturers participated early in the process, the economic meltdown impacting the telecom industry prompted them to retreat from MESA.

The vendors' retreat was pointedly addressed during an October 2005 meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, during which Kidner declared that should manufacturers fail to come forward with detailed proposals during the group's next meeting in Boston, MESA would end the process and have the individual standards bodies continue to work independently and merely exchange information with each other. Furthermore, Kidner sent a letter to manufacturers explaining that if MESA didn't receive any indication that vendors were going to make contributions, MESA would cancel its April meeting in Boston altogether. The dissolution of MESA could hurt both the prospects for a worldwide high-speed data standard for public-safety users and the creation of a global marketplace for vendors.

Motorola and EADS have since indicated they would make submissions at this month's meeting.

“The frustration is that we all know the advent of this technology will come,” said Craig Jorgensen, chair of MESA's service specification group. “It's not a matter of if, but when. But the longer we wait, the more we put our officers and other public-safety folks in a position where they can't fully serve the public. It amazes me that everyone can take their laptops and BlackBerrys and expect that we can send our high-speed data. Yet people saving our lives have more critical data needs.”

But it's difficult to blame vendors for their lack of enthusiasm to date. Part of the reason they have not been attracted to Project MESA is that they don't see a tremendous marketplace for such equipment. Much like the Project 25 market, upfront investments to develop MESA equipment and systems are high for manufacturers while the return on investment prospects aren't as high as they are in the commercial sector.

Another major problem is the lack of spectrum identified for next-gen public-safety systems in both the U.S. and Europe. MESA purposely left the issue of identifying spectrum until last because it didn't want to battle for spectrum before it had technology mapped out. That, however, has created a chicken-and-egg situation. How do vendors develop a business plan based on a vision?

“Vendors aren't going to jump up and build something without spectrum set aside,” said Larry Nyberg, MESA secretariat and market development manager for Motorola.

Motorola and EADS made introductory proposals during MESA's October meeting regarding technology concepts for the next generation of public-safety networks. But Kidner declared their proposals weren't detailed enough and demanded more extensive proposals.

Motorola's Nyberg said the vendor is submitting such a proposal this month based on technology it already is offering for the 4.9 GHz band. Adding to its already-significant penetration in the public-safety market, Motorola recently announced general availability of MotoMesh, a quad-radio product that operates in both the 2.4 GHz and 4.9 GHz bands.

Currently being deployed in 12 U.S. cities, MotoMesh is based on technology the vendor giant acquired when it purchased Maitland, Fla.-based MeshNetworks late in 2004. The platform uses two standard 802.11 radios and two proprietary Mesh-Enabled Architecture (MEA) radios in one solution. The four radios can be turned up as needed and intelligently configured — either as access or backhaul — on a link-by-link basis. Other MotoMesh features include fast self-forming, self-healing, built-in location and tracking of radios via triangulation, and support for user connectivity at megabit speeds. The system also can support seamless handoff between nodes. Eventually, MotoMesh also will be married with WiMAX as part of Motorola's Wi4 strategy once 802.16e is standardized and profiled to work in the unlicensed band.

“It makes sense to leverage our investment in mesh technologies,” said Nyberg, who declined to give any more detail about Motorola's proposal.

It's unclear what type of proposal EADS will put forth, but chances are it will be based on technology already in the market so vendors can leverage existing technology. As demonstrated by their preference for mesh-oriented technologies for use in the 4.9 GHz band, it has become apparent that public safety wants to leverage technology that already exists in the commercial world to receive some economies of scale. Vendors also prefer existing technology because it lets them leverage the financial investments they've already made.

Kidner also is holding out hope that other vendors will step up. Qualcomm has made several initial technology presentations, but none detailed to the level that MESA needs. Now that the vendor has purchased Flarion Technologies — a leading developer of orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) access technology that invented wideband spread-spectrum technology known as Flash-OFDM and developed a significant amount of intellectual property pertaining to OFDM technology — MESA is hoping for some movement from Qualcomm.

The District of Columbia deployed a successful pilot network based on Flash-OFDM in 2004 in the 700 MHz band. Flash-OFDM divides spectrum into several 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.

“To be honest, I'm quite excited about it. This could be the start of something brilliant,” said Kidner of the prospect that MESA finally will receive some detailed proposals this month based on the platform.

But even when MESA receives the detailed technology proposals it has long sought, the group will face some formidable obstacles. The primary one is identifying and allocating additional spectrum. Though public safety has received spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band for high-speed data applications and is poised to get an additional 24 MHz in the 700 MHz in 2009 when broadcasters are forced to relinquish those airwaves, the aggregate is too little to operate the type of networks that Project MESA envisions.

“We need spectrum outside of anything we have today, including 4.9 and 700 MHz,” Jorgensen said. “And the reason is the amount of bandwidth it takes to push data through.”

Of course, identifying and allocating spectrum is an arduous and highly political process in the U.S., as a vast number of entities lobby for a finite and limited resource. If public safety is successful in obtaining more airwaves, it likely will be in higher-frequency bands that propagate over shorter distances compared with lower bands such as 700 MHz and 800MHz. That translates into more sites and higher costs to build out a nationwide system. That will force public safety to consider some non-traditional options, Jorgensen said.

“These systems from the onset have to be cooperative, whether that's on a public/private basis or multiple jurisdictional basis,” he said. “At some point in time, we'll have to force that issue.”

Indeed, commercial mobile services are playing an increasingly important role in the public-safety communications arena as they evolve to support more first-responder features such as advanced push-to-talk services and high-speed data transmission. But with the exception of Sprint Nextel, few operators have been aggressive at targeting this segment because penetrating the first-responder sector at a deep level requires operators to make investments that are contrary to their own commercial interests or to find public-safety partners willing to invest to make such networks mission-critical. Consequently, it's likely that MESA will have to consider a model that calls for the government to fund additional capacity and coverage of a commercial network to accommodate public-safety entities.

MESA might want to look just a few miles down the road from where it was born. Aloha Networks and Lucent Technologies unveiled a high-speed data network late last year to benefit the Phoenix Fire Department and Bureau for Homeland Defense. A demonstration of the network is scheduled for this year in Phoenix using Aloha Partner's 700 MHz spectrum and Lucent's 1xEV-DO equipment.

In addition, Aloha, the largest holder of 700MHz spectrum, plans to build a nationwide broadband wireless network and use half of it to provide dedicated access to public-safety users and commercial broadband access to rural customers on the other half. MESA should note, however, that Aloha has a low-cost advantage. It paid only $35 million for spectrum in the 700 MHz band, and the propagation characteristics of the band translate into lower capital expenditures at the outset.

Another MESA vision that will take some considerable time and effort is harmonizing frequencies between Europe and the U.S. — a highly charged political process.

Indeed, the 4.9 GHz band has been allocated for high-speed data services for the public-safety market in the U.S., but not in Europe. During the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva in 2003, Asia, South America and North America agreed to allocate 4.9 GHz for public safety, while Europe rejected the harmonization plan.

MESA doesn't expect that U.S. and European public-safety users will operate on the same frequencies, but it hopes that any spectrum allocation is on the same band to create favorable economies of scale for vendors.

However, Motorola's Nyberg is seeing some hope for new spectrum allocations that could bring MESA closer to its harmonization goals. The U.K. is beginning to look for new frequencies for public-safety users to accommodate high-speed data services, while the European Union is looking to create an equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as Europe faces the same vulnerabilities as the U.S.

“We at Motorola absolutely are committed to keeping Project MESA going by supporting it on a global scale,” Nyberg said. “It absolutely will be going forward. It's just a question of how it moves and where it moves.”

May 2000: ETSI and TIA launch Project MESA

October 2000: Inaugural plenary meeting is held

February 2001: ETSI and TIA fine-tune partnership agreement and welcome South Korea's standards organization into the partnership as an observer

September 2001: Project MESA reiterates its commitment to create a new wireless network in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks

October 2002: Fifth plenary meeting members approve a statement of requirements

April 2003: Project MESA approves aggressive road map for technical development

October 2005: Project MESA declares it will shut down if manufacturers don't come to the table with detailed technical proposals

Source: Project MESA