Second, not all mesh networks are based on Wi-Fi or derivatives of the technology. The benefits of this ubiquitous technology standard are well-known; Wi-Fi offers easy access, high data rates and low costs. However, Wi-Fi suffers from a short communication range, security holes and mobility constraints, so it's far from ideal for first responder data communications.
There's a rule of thumb to remember: The higher the frequency band of the radio, the higher the throughput but the shorter the range. Conversely, the lower the frequency band, the lower the throughput and the longer the range. This leads to the question, "What's considered high and what's considered low?" For the purposes of this discussion, 1 GHz will be the boundary between the two.
Generally speaking, higher throughput allows for greater flexibility in the application of the technology. An example of which is the ability to stream video from a police car, which cannot be accomplished without a significant data pipeline. This capability is tempered by the reality that with that data pipe comes a much smaller radio coverage area, so substantially more infrastructure is required. This can mean 20 or more access points per square mile. This is simply not practical or affordable for the majority of law enforcement agencies — or all public safety agencies for that matter — especially those in local municipalities, small- to mid-size towns and counties.
Though fewer lower frequency band mobile mesh solutions are available, those that are deserve a good look. These solutions offer a much wider communication range that is usually measured in miles instead of feet. The data rates are lower than what higher frequency mesh offers, but still much higher than most private radio systems (i.e. RD-LAP) and in line with cellular data access speeds.
A vast majority of law enforcement applications, including computer-aided dispatch, records management systems, e-mail, automatic vehicle locationing (AVL) and criminal database access, are supported by lower frequency band mobile mesh solutions. Couple this with the fact that lower frequency alternatives need fewer than 10 percent of the access point density of Wi-Fi-based higher frequency mesh networking solutions, and it's easy to see the value proposition of these alternatives.
Unfortunately, this kind of information has not been readily available to most public safety agencies. Some feel they are not able to leverage the advantages that mesh networking is capable of delivering based on price alone. Instead, they pass in favor of land mobile radio systems or cellular data networks with lower initial investments but substantial recurring fees. For those who have eschewed mesh networking in the past, perhaps it's time to give it another look.
Choosing the right system — mesh or not — requires that each agency completely understand their unique needs and requirements. So, how does any agency begin the process of evaluating its needs and matching them to the solutions on the market? Very deliberately.
Too often public safety officials make choices concerning mobile data solutions before they have fully identified their needs and defined their true requirements. Sometimes they make choices based on ethereal needs rather than thinking about long-term issues.
Surveys have shown that public safety officials expect their solutions to last for at least 10 years. Certainly, 10 years is a long time and it may seem difficult, if not impossible, to project the types of applications the agency will be using in three years, let alone five or 10. The point is, think long term and practical. If 10 years seems a bit of a stretch, then project out to seven years.
For example, will officers require the ability to submit reports via a records management system and accomplish such tasks as downloading evidence photos, mugshots and other images? Is Internet access desirable? What about AVL?
What changes are anticipated in the agency's service area? Is the population growing? How will the agency change to accommodate this growth? How many units are in the field now, and how is this expected to change over the next five to 10 years?