by Stephen Lawson

Mesh Networks: Providence Looks Beyond Wi-Fi

Nov 01, 20062 mins

Many cities turn to wireless to help residents and visitors get online, but Providence, R.I., is unwiring itself in a totally different way. The New England port city of 178,000 looked at the needs of its public safety agencies and chose a proprietary mesh network system that avoids some pitfalls of standard Wi-Fi, such as security and interference, according to city CIO Charles Hewitt.

Providence’s Motorola Mesh Network Architecture system uses the same unlicensed frequencies as Wi-Fi, but isn’t open to the public at all. To use it, you need special gear made by Motorola. Deployment of the $2.3 million network, which the city owns and operates, began in August and should be done by year’s end, Hewitt says.

Among the advantages for safety officials, the network can route packets around a failed access point, an area of interference or a congestion point, Hewitt says. It also works in vehicles, to let firefighters view building floor plans and police officers see suspects’ mug shots while on the way to a call. “What they would see out in the car would be virtually the same as what they have at their desk,” Hewitt says.

The system uses technology that Motorola got through buying Mesh Networks in 2004. Mesh built upon work by the U.S. Defense Department on devices that could create ad hoc networks among themselves on the battlefield, says Rick Rotondo, a marketing director at Motorola.

Proprietary mesh networks can pose a challenge at a bad time, according to Craig Settles, a municipal wireless researcher. In an emergency, crews from neighboring communities won’t be able to get on the city’s network, he says.

However, as long as the Motorola network is connected to another IP network, any agency with an IP-based network could communicate through that network, Hewitt says.