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February 25, 2004
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Fight crime without wires

By David M. Ewalt
Information Week

Colorado city''s wireless network uses GPRS and Wi-Fi to get information to public-safety workers faster

The city of Aurora located just outside of Denver, is Colorado''s third-largest city, home to nearly 300,000 people and 10,000 businesses. A fleet of 300 police cars and fire trucks helps keep the city safe, and a new, innovative wireless network keeps public-safety workers connected wherever they go. The result: more-efficient crime fighting and faster response to fires.

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Throughout the 1990s, public-safety agencies in Aurora used a radio system to feed limited data about the location of fires and crimes to computers in city vehicles. But as the city prepared to enter the 21st century, the technology became increasingly obsolete, and the vendor--Motorola Inc.--eventually stopped supporting it. Thanks to a federal grant, the city was able to deploy a more-modern system that used a 19.2-Kbps Cellular Digital Packet Data network to send files to mobile data terminals in each car. But a year and a half ago, vendor AT&T Wireless decided not to support CDPD any longer.

City officials were left in a quandary. They had installed 161 fixed, mounted cellular modems around the municipality but were increasingly interested in new broadband technologies, including 802.11 wireless networks. After nine months of testing, they decided to use a little of both, implementing a hybrid network consisting of 56-Kbps and 114-Kbps General Packet Radio Service and Wi-Fi networks that can handle up to 11 Mbps.

Today, Aurora''s public-service vehicles connect on the road and download necessary files to a laptop via a GPRS connection, provided by T-Mobile, which has the best coverage in the area. When they''re parked in a city lot or docked in a fire station or depot, the vehicles connect via a faster Wi-Fi link, letting them download bigger files. "You can download an entire application in the time it takes to fill up your gas tank," says Mike Bedwell, the city''s manager of Public Safety Systems.

There are many benefits of such a system. Police officers can download a mug shot in 20 seconds, as opposed to 50 minutes using the old network. It also lets cops cooperate in real time. "A police officer can write his reports in the police vehicle and send them back in real time," Bedwell says. "That report can be sitting within minutes on a detective''s desk. And the sooner an investigator can react to a crime, the more likely it is to be solved." In the past, it would take a couple of days for paper reports to trickle through the system.

The Fire Department benefits, too. The system lets firefighters examine maps of an area when they''re heading to a fire, alerting them to possible hazards such as gas lines and showing the location of water mains that may help fight the fire. "The more information and tools you have, the better," Bedwell says.

The system, which cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to implement, was deployed by integrator Anyware Network Solutions Inc. Software from NetMotion Wire- less Inc. allows users to roam seamlessly between Wi-Fi and GPRS networks, and it also encrypts the communications in order to keep the system secure. Wavelink Corp.''s Avalanche and Mobile Manager allow the city to centrally manage the network and all the devices on it from a single console, as well as push software and data updates out to vehicles.

That ability to perform remote upgrades is a key feature, Bedwell says. Last summer, before the Wavelink software was in place, the Blaster worm infected the network, requiring workers to be called in on a weekend to individually update the virus-protection software on each notebook computer. But now that the system is in place, they can easily change configurations on any machine in the system, even if it''s in a police car racing down the highway. "Pushing it out is a lot more efficient," Bedwell says. "And we save on overtime costs."



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