New markets for mesh: It’s for far more than city surveillance

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

YARMOUTH, Maine—Ten months ago an electrical substation near San Jose, Calif. came under attack from a group of snipers who remain anonymous and at large. Remarkably, the episode did not draw attention from the national media until Feb. 5, when the Wall Street Journal reported on the investigation.

Among the myriad concerns that the attack generated: the U.S. government doesn’t have an agency devoted primarily to protecting the nation’s power grid.

The nation’s physical security industry has noticed.

Integrators and providers of mesh and wireless networks, in particular, have been transitioning in recent years from municipal surveillance applications to industrial and commercial projects.

While the need for mobile security surveillance keeps growing in the public sector, the market for mesh is expanding beyond that—the result of technological advances and the dizzying speed at which our culture communicates on the go.

John McCool, CEO of Firetide, an international provider of mesh network technology based in Campbell, Calif., noted that it is fairly common for technological innovations to take off in private industry after the initial groundwork is done for the military, public safety or other government agencies. The attack on the San Jose power station, McCool said, “demonstrates a crying need” for mesh/wireless networks that emerged in major cities a decade ago.

Markets include industrial plants, commercial businesses, college campuses and even individual homeowners who want more than the traditional point-to-point video surveillance.

“Now that people are more mobile, they are concerned with protecting their private assets” from wherever they are, McCool said.

In a mesh network, radio systems allow video signals to travel a multitude of complicated (and sometimes obstructed) routes. Instead of going from point A to point B, and then from point A to point C, the video signal in a mesh network of radios can go from A to Z, and from Z to other points before returning to home base A, explained David Coleman, managing director of Avrio RMS Group, based in Buffalo Grove, Ill.

“The development and use of video has proliferated so dramatically over the last decade,” Coleman said. “So have the applications.”

While Avrio does the bulk of its wireless integration services in the municipal arena (including housing, public universities, water authorities, transportation, port authorities and parks-recreation), back in 2003, Coleman says, “we were pioneers using wireless video programs for the Chicago Police Department.”  Now, he points out, “We do a couple of things beyond municipal use” including “private businesses interested in having video footage to give to police.”

Rob Simopoulos, president of Advance Technology, in Scarborough, Maine, says his company integrates mesh solutions for a variety of applications outside government agencies. They include health care facilities, financial institutions, college campuses and commercial office buildings. The most natural fit for mesh, he says, are college campuses, due to their multiple parking lots, the likelihood of a lot of trees, and the need for remote cameras to protect students and faculty who are rarely in one place for a long time.

“Wireless solutions allow cameras to perform multiple tasks,” Simopoulos aid. It’s not only about creating multiple paths to get around cars, buildings and trees, he said. “It’s also about speed and bandwidth.”

Integrators like Simopoulos love an engineering challenge. He spoke of the fun his team had recently while servicing a commercial facility with “a massive parking lot” and trees that were not protected by the government but by the customer.

The integrators’ marching orders: “Keep all of the tall trees. Don’t knock them down … They had a security problem at night with people hiding behind trees,” Simopolous said. “We had to design a wireless solution around the trees and transmit the signals back to the parking lot.” He called it “a unique project—pretty wild.”

These types of solutions can seem expensive, although the price pales when compared to digging trenches for laying cable, according to Simopolous and Paul Hoffman, a design engineer at Integrated Systems and Communications. For the past decade, ISC has been taking advantage of emerging markets with corporate campuses, small businesses and schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. 

“The hardware is not cheap,” said Hoffman. “In a lot of cases with mesh, you're talking about a lot of extra points. “But part of the beauty of mesh is that you are over-weaving a pattern to cover a whole area with radio signals. “No single point of failure takes down signals throughout the path.”

Creative solutions still abound in the public sector, however. How could a systems integrator not welcome the challenge of configuring a top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top wireless mesh solution for the New York City Housing Authority’s 30,000 buildings, which contain between 7,000 and 8,000 elevators? That’s what Glen Taylor, senior vice president of sales at EIA, has to look forward to when he gets up in the morning.

“Part of the challenge is that these elevators are 40 to 50 years old,” Taylor said. “There are no communication risers. We can’t drill through people’s apartments.” Such limitations mean that the elevators are not tied into access control or the overall building security system that EIA designs—yet. Some of the elevators now have stand-alone cameras; others do not. There is a plan in place to use available bandwidth in the building to administrate newly installed servers for surveillance, but that is a slow process, says Taylor.

Despite restrictions unique to the public sector, most of Taylor’s work is New York City municipal business. From his perspective, market growth beyond the public sector derives from private companies with public contracts—such as the elevator companies.

According to Taylor, the company began its wireless network servicing in the mid-90s when a judge in the New York City judicial system found it inconceivable and unacceptable that NYC’s 300 court buildings “didn’t talk to each other” through any technology more advanced than the telephone.

“He’s reading an article about IP cameras,” Taylor said of the judge, who advocated for connection to the “disparate system out there.” The city’s courthouses now have 3,500 cameras.

“We used to go point to point,” Taylor said. “We had 36 radios talking to one point. We got that down to 17 radios through trial and tribulation, with two or three head-end radios … Mesh technology has taken off since then.”

New York is full of oversized infrastructure challenges that demand mesh/wireless solutions, such as “getting across Sixth Avenue,” Taylor said. “You not going to do it with cable. You just can’t be trenching that stuff there.” EIA has also integrated wireless networks for a private K-12 school that ripped out all of its cable infrastructure to put up mesh, and the company recently laid the network for security at the New York City Marathon—in two days. Instead of trenching, the integrators are connecting radios and Ethernet and photocells in a process that prompts Taylor to say, “We’re just plugging stuff in.”

Logic would suggest that mesh markets would extend to cities beyond U.S. borders, and they do. But there is a private-sector market in Latin America and Canada that hasn’t developed in the United States— the mining industry, according to Umberto Malesci, president of Fluidmesh, a mesh network provider 

“On-shore and offshore mining is getting more and more traction in Latin America and Canada,” Malesci said. “There are more opportunities there for wireless mesh” because the mining industry is not robust in the U.S., he said.

On the domestic front, Malesci lists the oil and gas industries in Texas and other Southwest states, as well as railroads, college campus and airports as verticals where the mesh is used frequently.

He stressed the growth opportunities in private-public partnerships as a mobile population accesses more advanced technology and demands more security in all facets of life. Shopping malls and business groups working with police, as well as neighborhood watch programs, are examples of private-public consortiums where integrators can provide wireless solutions to complex problems.