Muni-Mesh Fights Crime

By Naomi Graychase

June 10, 2005

A small California city is looking to keep crime rates down using the latest in wireless technology.

Next week, the city of Ripon, Calif. will begin the first phase of installation for its new, half-million dollar citywide wireless broadband system, the first of its kind in California. The Motorola Mesh Network system (established when it acquired the former MeshNetworks) will be deployed throughout June and July by Lockheed Martin.

The network differs from a typical broadband municipal wireless deployment in many significant ways. For one, it isn't based on Wi-Fi.

“In our peer-to-peer network, lots of bandwidth can go from one device to the next without having to traverse access points or network backhaul, which results in more bits per square mile,” says Rick Rotondo of Motorola. “You could literally set up a mesh network where you have a bunch of end users show up at an incident outside of your network coverage area, but with our system, every user acts as a router repeater for every other user. If they have our mesh cards in their PCs, that instantly forms a network at the incident site. You can transfer video, data, IM each other without ever touching one bit of bandwidth on your deployed network. It’s like peer-to-peer over the Internet. There’s no centralized server. Users serve as backhaul. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, comparing it to another network.”

Ripon, which is located near Modesto in Central Northern California, is home to approximately 13,000 people. It is served by a police force of roughly 25 sworn officers. The city plans to use the mobile mesh system to improve public safety by enabling high-speed access to crucial information such as live video feeds and fingerprint databases.

“One of the things we’ll be able to do is search databases so that eventually we can take a thumbprint out in the field and send it through the system and see if we get a hit on that person or not,” says Ripon’s Chief of Police, Richard Bull. “This will enable us to cut out the false information and false identifications out in the field.”

Bull, who has been Ripon’s Police Chief for five years, has also been serving as Project Manager on the network development project since the search for a new network began two years ago. After reviewing many proposals from various companies offering wireless options, the city council voted unanimously to apportion more than half a million dollars to the Motorola Mesh Network project.

Despite being close neighbors with the number one and number three locations for auto theft in the country (Modesto and Stockton, respectively), Ripon has a very low auto theft rate, and a low crime rate overall. Bull credits this, in part, to his town’s willingness to employ the latest law enforcement technologies.

“We have a very proactive police department that is willing to look at new technologies, and a supportive and innovative city council that likes to think outside the box. They could see now and in the future a lot of uses for this type of technology,” says Bull.

Among the biggest perks of the new system are live video feeds, even at high speeds. In the event of a bank robbery, for instance, units could respond and race to the scene while receiving real time, live video feeds from inside the bank.

“Our network supports mobile broadband connectivity at up to 250 miles per hour,” says Rotondo. “We hand-off a fraction of a second between each node, whereas Wi-Fi takes a second to 26 seconds between nodes. This is highly mobile.”

Ripon’s network planners expect to set up surveillance cameras at local retail and bank establishments, as well as in city parks, schools and other areas.

“We’ll have officers out in the field selecting different cameras to see what’s going on in parks, schools, commercial areas, to have a better handle on keeping things safe,” says Bull.

Born out of military battlefield communications technology, the mesh network, which covers the entire city, utilizes several methods of security and authentication.

“There’s a ton of authentication and security,” says Rotondo. “For instance, we have unpublished spreading codes that we use over the air so that when people walk around with Wi-Fi detectors, they can’t even detect a network.”

A portion of the network’s price tag is covered by a $75,000 Homeland Security grant.

“We’re putting up cameras at our three large commercial truck stops,” says Bull. “Thousands of vehicles go through there on a daily basis carrying everything from diapers to extremely hazardous materials. We wanted a good means of having surveillance out there. One of the things that has been brought up is hijacking of tanker trucks or other hazardous materials.”

Bull, who has been on the force for nearly thirty years, says he's seen dramatic changes in those three decades.

“When we started out, we didn’t even have portable radios,” he says. “Technology has changed the face of law enforcement very dramatically, I think for the better. Not in my career would I have thought we’d see this.”

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