Monday, October 10, 2011

Providing Reliable Wireless Communications for First Responders

If you’re in charge of a first-responder operation such as fire, police or utility emergency repair, the last thing you want to deal with is unreliable wireless communications. A young company named Utility Associates has an innovative wireless communication system that provides reliable WiFi connectivity to all approved mobile devices utilized in emergency, utilities and first-responder situations.If you’re in charge of a first-responder operation such as fire, police or utility emergency repair, the last thing you want to deal with is unreliable wireless communications. How do you handle a temporarily lost connection? How do you manage going from 3G to 4G areas and back again? How do you provide access to all the devices that are present in an emergency situation? What happens if you can’t get a GPS signal? You’d hate to be in an emergency situation and have the following message comes up on the laptop display, “Reboot your wireless modem.”
There’s a solution to this challenging problem. A young company in Tucker, Ga., named Utility Associates has an innovative and reliable wireless communication system for in-field vehicles that’s called the Rocket. It provides reliable WiFi connectivity to all approved mobile devices utilized in emergency, utilities and first-responder situations. The Rocket accepts a 3G or 3G/4G USB cellular modem (pictured) from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless or Sprint. The Rocket is typically housed in a sealed case in the vehicle’s trunk so that the Rocket can’t be tampered with or altered in the field.
The Rocket has an antenna that is extended to the outside of the vehicle to maintain the best wireless connection possible. All certified and approved mobile devices can then connect via WiFi to the Rocket and stay connected while in the field. This enables police, fire and other emergency vehicles to connect through the Rocket.
It’s Utility’s software that makes the Rocket provide ultra-reliable data communications in challenging field environments such as tornados, where some cell towers may be knocked out, or in natural disasters such as hurricanes.

The Rocket mobile communications appliance.
Utility has also figured out how to migrate a connection that starts in a 4G area but temporarily reverts back to 3G and then returns to 4G. Today, the cellular modem software from the wireless modem providers doesn’t enable connections to re-engage to 4G once it has stepped down to 3G. The user would normally have to reboot the modem to regain a 4G connection. The Rocket’s software automatically re-establishes a 4G connection.
Utility has found that HSPA+ from AT&T and T-Mobile works fine when driving around in a vehicle, but Verizon 4G LTE and Clearwire (Sprint) WiMax have challenges. All of this works fine on a stationary laptop in an office or conference room—but the problems crop up when the modem is moving at high speed and traveling in and out of 4G coverage areas.
A police officer, fireman or utility worker should not have to care or worry about whether he or she is currently driving in a 3G or a 4G service area. The modem needs to maintain a connection regardless of whether the vehicle migrates from one 3G area to another area that has 4G.
Fortunately, Utility’s engineers have figured out how to get the Rocket to tell the modem to automatically switch to 4G LTE when a vehicle drives back into a 4G service area. And Utility has patent applications pending for this 3G/4G switching process. Utility expects that the modem manufacturers will eventually figure this out and get seamless switching between 3G and 4G while in motion working, but it is not available today.
NetMotion provides session persistence as the Rocket switches between 3G and 4G cellular data, just like it does when the Rocket switches between cellular data and 802.11b/g/n yard access points. So, a customer running NetMotion on their vehicle laptops will not have to re-log onto their Windows apps every time the Rocket switches between 3G and 4G as the police car or utility truck is driving in and out of 3G and 4G service areas.
Utility also partners with Wilson Electronics to provide an integrated cellular boosting capability. Some vendors recommend having multiple cellular data cards in a vehicle wireless router. However, this doubles/triples the monthly cellular data cost. In addition, since no one wants a cell tower in their back yard, most cell towers host antennas from several cellular providers. If the cell tower goes down, all the cell carriers with antennas on that tower also go down. Multiple cellular connections to the same dead cell tower still means the vehicle is out of cellular coverage. With a cell booster, if the nearby cell tower is down, the vehicle can still communicate with distant cell towers that are still working. This provides much more reliable cellular communications, as Virginia Gas saw in Hurricane Irene.
The Rocket also reads WiFi RFID tags and connects to the vehicle engine diagnostics port. First responders and utilities want to know not only where the vehicle is, but also what people and what “stuff"–equipment, toolboxes, backhoes, pumps, generators, weapons, defibrillators, etc.–are in and around the vehicle on a real-time basis, e.g., where did the EMS crew leave their $15,000 EKG machine?
AVaiL is Utility’s command and control hosted solution (SaaS) provides a real-time operating view of the customer’s mobile operations. AVaiL lets the customer see their assets and move them to where they need to be as quickly and efficiently as possible. AVaiL helps customers maximize the five facets of mobile resource management: speed, safety, efficiency, productivity and service.
With real-time GPS, RFID and other critical data flowing in, the customer’s command center can select and dispatch the best vehicle to the emergency or work site. This gives the customer insight into where personnel and equipment are located and helps them work safely based on the events taking place in the field. With vehicle diagnostics, engine trouble reporting and routing, Rocket-managed fleets reduce realize significant fuel and maintenance cost reductions.
When the vehicles come back to the office or station at the end of a shift, there is a challenge to enable all of the vehicles to download stored information to the customer’s servers. Utility is able to securely and reliably upload a gigabyte of video data to an authorized custom access point in less than 90 seconds, allowing the first responder to get back on the road. Utility offers a custom wireless access point that provides patent-pending automated load balancing to maximize the throughput from multiple first responder vehicles that come back to the station at the end of a shift.

Robert McKeeman, Utility’s CEO, offered a prophetic closing, “It’s reassuring to know that, in an emergency situation, first-responder personnel with the Rocket in their vehicles can be assured that their wireless communications work, so that they can focus on doing their job and not have to resort to being IT professionals.”

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