Wi-Fi Helps 'Homeland Security' Efforts

By Jeff Goldman

September 11, 2008

802.11 wireless technology is playing an increasingly important role in 'homeland security' projects in ports, rail lines, and towns and cities around the country.

Today, seven years after the September 11th attacks, wireless technology is playing an increasingly central role in so-called "homeland security," with new deployments announced on a regular basis. Most recently, Arizona’s Page Municipal Airport this week launched a new wireless network for video surveillance and access control.

The network was deployed by Durham Communications using wireless equipment from Firetide--and according to Durham account manager Jim Garrett, the inherent cost savings made wireless particularly attractive. “Had we gone with a fiber-based solution, the cost of trenching and installing the network would have been at least five times as much,” he says.

Beyond the cost savings, Mark Jules, president of business development and strategic planning for the Avrio Group, points out that in many locations that are important for "homeland security," wired solutions just aren’t an option. “When you look at things like target hardening or border security, the terrain in a lot of those places… requires you to use wireless transmission,” he says.

While Jules won’t identify any of the Avrio Group’s key "homeland security" deployments for security reasons, he cites as one example “a city where there’s a tremendous petroleum industry and a chemical industry, so they’re extremely interested in protecting waterways and also in surveilling entrances and exits to the city--that’s certainly a place where we’ve found the need to deploy wireless surveillance.”

Fixed deployments

One of the Avrio Group’s publicly announced deployments was in Buffalo, New York earlier this year, where video cameras, connected using Firetide mesh and point-to-point wireless equipment, were deployed in a number of locations that had specifically been deemed sensitive by the Department of Homeland Security, according to Ksenia Coffman, Firetide’s marketing and communications manager.

Beyond citywide networks, Coffman says, “We also see a lot of deployments for critical infrastructure such as dams, water supplies, water treatment plants, and wastewater facilities, [where] wireless mesh is a very strong application because these are often in challenging terrain.”

Jules notes that while these kinds of deployments usually start with a focus on enabling video surveillance, they quickly expand into many other applications as well. “Agencies, whether they be local or federal, once they build this network, they want to run as many applications as possible over it to get the best value out of the resource,” he says. “So we’re seeing everything from access control to license plate recognition to gunshot detection.”

The next step in managing these kinds of networks, Jules says, will be to enable more collaboration between agencies. “That’s the biggest trend you’re going to see in the future: agencies sharing these resources to maximize them… we had an event recently where over 60 federal and local agencies were using video that we were capturing,” he says.

Instant networks

Wireless networks are also ideal for enabling speedy deployments as needed for emergency response. Dave Logan, general manager of federal solutions for Aruba Networks says his company is working with the Air National Guard to outfit 100 SUVs with equipment that can be used to deploy a wireless network instantly upon arrival in a new location.

And Logan says the fact that the same Aruba equipment is being used by all Air National Guard units is key. “They can commingle their technology if they need to build a very large wireless network at a forward operating area… and they can all communicate back to their respective headquarters sites or to a common application set via satellite,” he says.

Similarly, Logan says, FEMA is using Aruba equipment to create instant networks for voice communication in a disaster area. “When they deploy to an incident site, they will deploy the Aruba network similarly to how Air National Guard deploys it, but their main application is not so much data driven but voice driven,” he says.

Ports and public transportation

Other key areas of concern for "homeland security" include ports and public transportation. In the Port of Richmond, California, ADT and BelAir Networks  have deployed 82 cameras on a 31-node mesh network covering 15 square miles for video surveillance.

Stephen Rayment, BelAir’s CTO and co-founder, says Richmond is just one of many ports where his company has deployments in place, not just for video surveillance, but also for asset tracking and hazardous material detection, “using chemical sensors dotted throughout the port area and then reporting that back to the command center.”

And public transportation systems provide another key challenge. Last year, Strix Systems deployed a wireless mesh network for video surveillance both inside the trains and along the track for the Coaster rail line in Southern California, the second most traveled rail line in the U.S.

Martin Levetin, Strix’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, says that, while the free municipal Wi-Fi model may have failed, “homeland security is much easier to grasp in terms of the need. So I do see this as a growing market--and I also see other applications being built on top of it--but homeland security is clearly going to be the driver.”

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist based in Southern California.



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