Milpitas Keeps Connected

By Adam Stone

May 05, 2005

The mesh network empowering first responders in the California city didn't initially reach everywhere, but with handoff help from NetMotion, everyone can now stay connected.

As a fire truck races to the scene, the metropolitan Wi-Fi keeps emergency personnel in contact with dispatchers at home base. Crucial information is relayed. Then the truck crosses out of wireless range. The connection goes dead.

This is very bad.

But there is a solution, in the form of a seamless handoff between the metro Wi-Fi network and a wide-area network such as those provided by the big cellular carriers. With the right technology and the right business arrangements, the fire truck can speed on through the night, oblivious to the boundary at which Wi-Fi drops and WAN begins.

Seattle-based NetMotion Wireless says it has crafted such a solution in Milpitas, Calif., in cooperation with local authorities and Wi-Fi mesh network designer Tropos Networks. The solution enables seamless roaming over the town's entire ten square mile MetroMesh-based network for police officers and firefighters. Other municipal workers such as building inspectors, traffic engineers and code enforcement officers also have seamless roaming access to city and utility applications.

"Now, if police and fire are responding to a call that is not in that city core, they don't lose connectivity to their dispatch applications," says Aaron Burnett, vice president of marketing at NetMotion Wireless. "Instead, what will happen is that they will simply roam using our software over to a wide area connection and continue what they are doing. It means that MetroMesh can be a truly mission-critical offering for them."

City officials say this function goes right to the heart of their telecommunications needs. "It is essential that our officers be able to move securely and seamlessly between our metro-scale Wi-Fi mesh network and our other wide area networks," says Bill Marion, information services director for the city of Milpitas, in a release announcing the deployment.

The commercial prospects for such a system go well beyond metropolitan emergency-systems deployments, and could have big implications for the Wi-Fi market.

Gartner researchers have said that by 2007 more than half of Fortune 1000 enterprises will be using a minimum of five wireless networks each. It's unlikely that either the big telecom companies or the Wi-Fi providers will be able to satisfy all these diverse needs for a given enterprise, "so some enabling technology that makes it possible to go from one wireless network to another is going to be absolutely critical," Burnett says.

Analysts give some credence to this logic, though they say the market may be slow in coming.

When Jupiter Research asked enterprise executives about WLAN/WAN roaming in March 2004, 30 percent of companies with wireless deployments or planned deployments said they would be interested in such a feature. A July 2004 survey nearly repeated that result, with 25 percent of respondents expressing interest, according to Jupiter researcher Ina Sebastian.

Jupiter senior analyst Julie Ask sees positive signs in the form of interest from both municipalities and WAN carriers. "There will be some demand for this, depending on what types of networks municipalities roll out for their emergency response units," she says. "The wireless carriers will also be looking to put these types of services in place for Wi-Fi-to-WAN for voice calls and data."

That's essentially what happened in Milpitas. Cingular already was involved in fulfilling the city's WAN needs, but the municipality wanted roaming capabilities to keep its dispatch applications up and running over a wide geographic area. Lacking the in-house technology, Cingular brought in NetMotion Wireless to fill the gap.

Others are in the running for this market. IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Connection Manager, for example, fills many of the same needs. Burnett speculates that the winners will be those who possess not only the appropriate technology, but also the ability to map that technology to a client's specific business needs.

For those looking for compete, there may still be time while the market takes shape, Ask says. "The enterprise and municipal markets are still evolving," she notes. As to a more widespread enterprise demand for WAN/WLAN roaming, she says, that could take even longer. "Overall, there just isn't high demand for wireless broadband from consumers ... so local- and metro-size networks may be the [most likely] applications in the near term, as opposed to national-level service."

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