All mesh networking is not created equal

     Everyone in law enforcement understands mobile data and the value of having access to mission-critical information in the field. While there have been several mobile data advancements the past decade, few have created as much buzz in the industry or held as much promise as mesh networking.

     That being said, many do not have a clear understanding of mesh networking and its true value to public safety.

     The best place to start is with a basic definition of mesh networking. In its simplest form, mesh networking is a wireless communications technology that allows each radio to function as a router, meaning data can be sent to or through any other radio in the network in order to reach the intended destination. In other words, radios communicate on a peer-to-peer level. This results in adaptive, flexible connections among users that would not be possible with traditional communication technologies.

     The "mesh" in mesh networking both refers to the overall shape of the network's communication paths as well as to its decentralized nature. The latter is really the key to mesh networking's distinctive performance characteristics and why mesh networking solutions are so important for public safety applications.

     Unlike other mobile data solutions that resemble a hub-and-spoke or cellular architecture, mesh networks do not rely on centralized controllers to guide network traffic. The mobile clients in these traditional wireless solutions are highly dependent on stationary infrastructure to keep them operational. If a controller fails, the entire system is compromised. Remove the hub, and the spokes are meaningless. In the arena of public safety, that type of failure spells disaster. These liabilities with traditional communications have driven many to adopt mesh networks for mobile data access.

     With mesh networking, the system is not limited by a single point of failure. Even if an individual radio, or node, in the network fails, the network remains operational. The network is, quite literally, ad hoc because it can instantly reform or "heal" itself. Mobile mesh networks, or "mobile ad hoc networks," have extraordinary flexibility and adaptive capabilities, and trace their history to late 1970s military communications applications that required the utmost in mobility and reliability.

     Current mobile mesh networking solutions have retained the peer-to-peer and "on the fly" nature that was characteristic of earlier generations. They have the ability to organically reform based on conditions in the field, whether that means a node drops out temporarily or permanently, or the network topology changes.

The differences in mesh

     There are, in fact, vast differences within the mesh networking product landscape. The tendency for some is to take certain known qualities and limitations of popular mesh networking solutions and apply those to the entire product category. It's like painting with a broad stroke when more detail is required.

     There are mesh networks and then there are mobile mesh networks. Solutions that are considered mobile mesh networks offer peer-to-peer communications at the client (vehicle) level, meaning each client radio in the field is a node in the mesh network. Fixed mesh networks in public safety feature mesh on the infrastructure side of the network, meaning the radio towers are meshed together but the clients are not.

     Of course, there are innumerous variations to these two general categories including some hybrids of both. Generally speaking though, mobile mesh networks offer some decided advantages including ad hoc radio coverage extension and greater network survivability. If infrastructure is damaged, destroyed or otherwise rendered inoperable, data communications can continue in mobile mesh networks.

     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.

Choosing a mobile data solution

     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?

     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:

  1.      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?
  2.      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?
  3.      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?
  4.      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?
  5. 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?
Due diligence will make the case

     Choosing the right mobile data solution for a particular application can seem like a daunting task. There are many choices in the market and more within the mesh networking segment than most realize.

     The key to avoiding the pitfalls and making the right decision is performing due diligence, both within the public safety agency and with prospective vendors. A thorough review of agency needs and requirements, followed by an analysis of how those needs stack up against the product offerings, will help ensure the ultimate choice is one that will serve the agency's needs many years into the future.

     Ryan Canning is the NovaRoam product manager with L-3 Communications Nova Engineering (www.l-3com.com/nova), an applied technology company in Cincinnati, Ohio. NovaRoam is the company's mobile mesh networking solution for public safety.

Loading