What is the terrain of the service area? Does the agency serve a primarily urban area with high-density residential and commercial structures, or is the service area suburban or rural? Is the area relatively flat, hilly or mountainous?
Finally, what is the budget? Does the agency have separate budgets for equipment, maintenance and ongoing monthly expenses if necessary?
Agencies, regardless of size, should seek input from a variety of experts, which must include the officers that will be using the new system. There is no better way of capturing all of the important features and requirements of the new system than by speaking with those who will be working with it daily.
Approach the process objectively. Capture input in writing when possible. Be sure to talk with other agencies and, if possible, visit mobile data installations to see how the solution actually operates in the field. All of this will build the foundation for choosing the solution that best suits the agency and avoid a poor decision the agency will have to live with for many years.Five decision points
To make the right choice when choosing a networking solution, public safety agencies must understand important differences — not only among the solutions themselves, but also about the infrastructure they require to remain operational. Focus on these five critical decision points:
Cost, and the length of time needed to achieve a return on investment. There are significant cost differences among various mesh networking solutions, and even greater differences when it comes to realizing a return on investment (ROI). Some solutions enable the purchaser to achieve an ROI in as little as two or three years; other solutions will take much longer. This is why each agency should establish a budget up front and manage expectations to that budget. Recognize that the initial capital outlay and ongoing expenses for a mesh network are different from other wireless solutions. At the same time, there are significant cost differences even among various mesh network vendors. Cost differences can be categorized three ways: acquisition costs, ongoing expenses, and deployment and training expenses.
- Acquisition costs include the initial outlay for the equipment and related infrastructure. All mesh networking systems require an initial outlay of cash, plus capital costs if additional computers, towers and other capital equipment are needed. When evaluating different solutions, agencies need to determine which are compatible with existing computer systems and software. In this category, agencies also should consider whether the solution is scalable. It is a good thing the system will grow with the agency's needs, but these costs will have to be budgeted at some point in the future.
- Ongoing expenses include monthly access fees or licensing fees. These are frequently overlooked. Agencies that choose to deploy a cellular network or trunked radio, for example, are not only dealing with the initial acquisition costs but also monthly charges that can total $80 or more per unit and may escalate in the years ahead. Alternatively, mesh networks have minimal ongoing expenses. Once the initial capital outlay is made, the agency owns the system outright and, depending on the frequency band, access or licensing fees may not apply.
- Determine the costs for deployment and training. Calculate the installation and deployment costs from a system integrator as part of the overall acquisition costs. At the same time, how will training be handled? Will the system integrator take care of this as part of the contract, or will it need to come straight from the vendor?
Durability and reliability is crucial. When evaluating solutions and vendors, consider the durability of the equipment as well as the infrastructure. Compare the systems side-by-side and, based on personal experience and that of actual customers, try to assess each system's susceptibility to outages during natural and man-made disasters.
- What redundancies are built into the solution?
- Can the system operate vehicle-to-vehicle if infrastructure is lost?
- How will the respective downtimes for each system impact operations, and the safety and security of the public?
- How rapidly can the system recover and reform itself?
What is the reputation and focus of each vendor? Be sure to perform due diligence to ensure those vendors on the short list are experienced, reputable and likely to be in business for a while. Some key metrics in this category include:
- Length of time in business. Is the company a relative newcomer, or has it been in the business for more than 10 years?
- What is its history? Is it engaged in both research and development? Is it a proven innovator and market leader
- Does the company's technology benefit from continual cross-pollination with military projects, often the source for innovation in the commercial field?
- How large is the company, and how does its size affect responsiveness and agility? Are the company's other customers of similar size, or much larger or smaller?
- What about service after the sale? How do current customers rate the tech support and service functions?
How does the data rate and range of each product under consideration meet the agency's requirements?
- How does each solution support the data applications currently in use, along with other applications like computer-aided dispatch, records management, e-mail and instant messaging, GPS positioning, database lookups, and image and file transfer?
- What is the range of each solution? How will it perform given the unique topographic features of the service area?
- What about each system's security features? Certain technologies are much more susceptible to hacking and intrusion. What safeguards, such as proprietary waveforms, encryption and user filtering, do the solutions offer?