Meshing with Homeland Security

By Eric Griffith

February 26, 2004

Start-up PacketHop is developing its mobile mesh technology with support for emergency and law enforcement in mind.

As municipalities around the world start to look at wireless technology to support first responders in the field, a self-healing/configuring mesh topology is always a contender due to its simplicity and low cost. One mesh provider, PacketHop of Belmont, Calif., thinks it will see a lot of initial success with a specific target: homeland security.

"Since 9/11, the shortcomings in communications have become obvious in many articles," says company CEO Michael Howse. "More recently, some areas have had the benefit of funding from federal grants and local agencies to fix some of these challenges."

That's where his company wants to come in. They plan to deploy wireless networks to work with multiple agencies (federal and local, fire fighters and cops) using serverless applications so that taking out a node of the network won't impact the use.

The company earlier this month held the first trial of its mobile mesh technology with multiple agencies in the San Francisco Bay area; the network was monitored in the state capital, Sacramento. Howse calls that trial a "showcase for homeland security."

The trial was led by the Golden Gate Safety Network (GGSN), a coalition of local and federal agencies that protect the Golden Gate Bridge, which has been subject to many threats. The trial was overseen by the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which monitored everything via a high-speed virtual private network (VPN) connection to the PacketHop network around the Golden Gate. The network extended (using high-gain antennas) from the Presidio north to Marin County, and even included nodes on Coast Guard and San Francisco Police Department ships in the bay.

PacketHop's network uses off-the-shelf hardware; this trial included products from 3eTI and Proxim for the wireless infrastructure and several ruggedized handheld units from companies including Panasonic and Xybernaut.

"The real thing that's an eye-turner is the ability to multitask video over the wireless mesh," says Howse. "IP cameras can go everywhere, and the bridge has around 31 full-time cameras. Broadcasting that in real-time is extraordinarily useful." Nodes on the mesh network were able to tune in the video as needed.

The company provides modular applications -- everything from video viewers to instant messaging clients -- that don't require a central server. The IM clients, for example, are truly peer-to-peer.

"In our world, working in a new class of applications like peer-to-peer without servers, you can have all the mechanisms you want like synchronization, logging, time-stamping for account liability, but they're tuned for mobile mesh," says Howse.

The trial is now over and there's no guarantee that PacketHop's technology will become the permanent backbone behind the network helping the GGSN. But Howse says that this trial and the commitment to helping homeland security is a "driving initiative in how we build the company. We hope they'll continue to use us."

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