Instant Connection for First Responders

By Eric Griffith

August 22, 2005

PacketHop's software will allow emergency services to use 'infrastructure-free' wireless communications wherever and whenever needed -- if they can afford it.

The last thing emergency services personnel want to do at the site of a crime, accident or disaster is to set up infrastructure equipment to support wireless communications. At least, that's what PacketHop, the software company from Redwood City, Calif., believes. Today, it introduced software to create what it calls "infrastructure-free, real-time multimedia communications" for police, firefighters and more.

The PacketHop Communication System is a mix of the company's two main software products. The TrueMesh software allows Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as off-the-shelf access points, but more specifically laptops and PDAs (and eventually phones), to create an instant mesh network using each device as a node for hops between other devices. The connections don't have to be explicitly turned on; they're automatic with any other device in range running TrueMesh.

The other product is called Aware for Public Safety, which lets the TrueMesh setup run communications services without a specific server or gateway.

"What we do is really different from the mesh companies like Tropos, Nortel, BelAir, all of which do some sort of meshing infrastructure," says David Thompson, PacketHop's vice president of marketing. "Their play is that doing [mesh] allows for cheaper backhaul.... End users don't see any of this." He says PacketHop software creates "very mobile, highly scalable meshes" that account for people entering and leaving the mesh.

Public safety has long been PacketHop's primary market. They worked with the Golden Gate Safety Network last year in a trial that tied together 13 different federal and state government and law enforcement agencies, all charged with protecting the bridge and bay of San Francisco. Thompson says those agencies found that using PacketHop applications reduced voice communication requirements by 70 percent by communicating through other means instead, such as instant messages.

While voice communications aren't a big priority on the TrueMesh yet —Thompson says it is coming—he considers one of the software's strengths to be its support of multicast video. Hooking IP cameras into the TrueMesh can allow for instant visualization of a scene for anyone using the on-site network. The Aware application also supports services like white-boarding of images or maps, and tracking of on-site resources for the highest ranking officers using GPS.

Cost for the software might be the biggest concern for most public safety agencies, at least for those without any Homeland Security funding. PacketHop will charge a fee based on the number of users with annual maintenance support contracts. Thompson would not definitively state the price, but estimated it at around $2,000 per end-user device.

"It might be more than some laptops," Thompson says, "but this is a brand new, breakthrough technology." He also compares it to the price of installing a permanent infrastructure for mesh networking, citing a frequently-used number in some circles of $160,000 per square mile to install permanent mesh equipment. He says that even then, a mesh infrastructure will have holes and may not penetrate buildings -- implying that PacketHop TrueMesh can do so, assuming it has enough nodes.

PacketHop knows that there is $10.9 billion (with a b) dollars out there allocated by the federal government for helping first responders improve equipment. That's the money they're counting on customers sending their way. And in the meantime, PacketHop has enough to keep going. Earlier this month, the company raised $10 million in its third round of funding, bringing its total financing since launching in 2003 to $25 million.

The PacketHop Communications System should be available in September of 2005.

Originally published on .

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