Wireless Mesh Networks

Local government agencies across the country are catching onto the benefits of wireless mesh networks. Some are looking to provide citizens with free or low-cost Internet access. Others have found that the networks can reduce labor costs by automating tasks such as reading utility meters. And many have found wireless networks to be ideal for sending data, such as mugshots and floor plans, to first responders equipped with computers in the field.

These networks are also proving to be very useful in transmitting and recording video for public safety and other purposes. Here are a couple examples:

• The town of Ripon, Calif., an upscale suburban community located near Stockton, has installed a wireless mesh network from Motorola that transmits video from more than 20 cameras installed in parks and in commercial and high-traffic areas. In addition to having recorded video for investigative purposes, the police department uses the network to access GIS maps, hazmat and homeland security information, and warrants.
• In Rockford, Ill., the housing authority teamed with the police department to install 16 wireless nodes from Firetide — each with its own camera, lighting and emergency intercom systems — to capture useful video for prosecution purposes and serve as a deterrent to crime.

Law enforcement, in particular, is turning to video transmitted via wireless mesh networks for traffic control, crime reduction, public safety at special events and for homeland security applications. Other departments such as transportation, utilities, and parks and recreation can also use the video.

Wireless Mesh: The Basics
A wireless mesh network consists of radio nodes working together to transmit video or other data. The data hops from node to node until it reaches its destination — most often a central monitoring station. One of the advantages of such a network is its redundancy — if one node fails, the others continue to communicate either directly or through intermediate nodes.

Mesh networks can work in areas where cabling would be prohibitively expensive or impossible to install, can be set up relatively quickly and be reconfigured or expanded to meet the changing needs of an end-user. The latter factor is a key element in any network design, as it also helps keep technologies current.

As a member of Security-Net’s TechNet group, I have had the opportunity to study and share wireless mesh network experiences with my colleagues across the country. Despite the technology’s many advantages for transmitting and recording video, we are all careful to complete a thorough site analysis to make sure a mesh network is really the right solution for each customer and its needs.

There are many potential problems that can affect a wireless mesh network. Trees, tall buildings and large bodies of water are a few of the topographical issues that might cause trouble in getting a video signal from the camera to the recorder.

“There are so many variables that you have to deal with when using mesh networks — it is not as controlled as setting down a length of fiber,” says Charlie Powell, of Indianapolis-based Koorsen Fire & Security. “The wireless mesh system that performs well transmitting over grass during the summer may have problems come winter, when highly reflective snow covers the ground.”

An experienced system integrator looking to design and install wireless mesh networks will invest in survey gear. I have a test kit that I use before installing, or even fully designing a mesh network. It consists of a couple of radio nodes, different types of antennas and tripods, a laptop computer and an IP camera or two. This gives a good indication if a mesh network is feasible for a particular site. But it is important to consider the environmental and other factors that may change over the coming months or years that could significantly impact a network’s performance.

Tom Horgan of InterTECH Security, based in Warrendale, Pa. says he has been working with a mesh networking solution from one manufacturer that preloads test modules into its offerings: “It includes a spectrum analyzer and is extremely easy to set up and test for electronic interference or other environmental issues you may run into,” he says. “The equipment is specifically designed to push video across the network.”

Professionally installed in the proper setting, a wireless mesh network should deliver video for recording at the same quality as that transmitted via fiber.

However, wireless mesh is not the right answer for all situations. Along with the environmental conditions, there are also bandwidth issues to consider when considering a mesh network.

Pitfalls of Mesh: Bandwidth Issues
The radio bandwidth of the mesh transmitters is usually a couple of megabytes. The integrator and end-user need to look at the expected frame rate and quality of the video to be sent back to the central station for recording. An experienced system integrator can look at the bandwidth of the system to see if it can work. It is really a mathematical equation — how large is the pipeline and how much bandwidth do you need to accomplish your goals.

Which can lead to one of the hottest products on the market today — megapixel cameras. These cameras are designed to provide the highest level of resolution for live and forensic review. But they are bandwidth hogs and as such may not be suitable for use in most wireless mesh network installations.

“The number of cameras an end-user may want to add to a system could be limited by the nature of a mesh network,” says Jim Coleman, president of Operational Security Systems in Atlanta.

“Bandwidth limits mean that the number of cameras cannot be increased exponentially,” Coleman adds. “So when an end-user wants to add a camera here and a camera there, that changes all those mathematical equations that were worked out to start the project. You just can’t keep adding cameras without affecting performance.”

Another bandwidth problem may result from the crowded radio spectrum in many cities. Seth Ferrier, of Salt Lake City-based Alpha Security, says that became a problem with a system the company installed for the city of Sandy, Utah.

Alpha installed a 14-camera system using the public safety network on the 4.9-gigahertz spectrum. But the population of other frequencies in the locations where Alpha had installed antennas was so heavy that Ferrier was limited in what frequencies he was able to select for the city. “Within the certain range, we were limited to the number of channels and bandwidth accordingly,” Ferrier says. “So we had some hurdles to overcome there.”

Koorsen’s Powell agrees with Ferrier that that crowded airwaves can be a serious problem for an end-user wanting to transmit video over a wireless mesh network. “In Indianapolis, we have the city police, state police, the FBI — everybody and his brother making demands on the available frequencies,” he says. “There are a lot of people using those same frequencies, and in a lot of cases, there is so much traffic that our systems can almost die on us.”

Mesh’s Advantages
Looking at some of the potential problems, it may seem as though transmitting video via a wireless mesh network is not worth the trouble and expense. But there are some tremendous advantages that make it a valuable security tool.

Ferrier says that Alpha Security had a Utah light rail customer that put off installing a security camera system along its entire line when a cost estimate for fiber transmission reached $10 million. When Alpha estimated a wireless mesh system could be installed for one-tenth the cost, the project won approval.

Here is a hypothetical example: If a city wanted to install a 30-camera public safety camera system over a 30-block area, the cost and inconvenience of trenching for a fiber backbone would likely be prohibitive. A wireless mesh system would be not only less costly, but also less disruptive to traffic.

These examples are not meant to imply that a wireless mesh network will always be significantly less expensive than a system with a fiber backbone; but, as Powell notes, there are some projects — such as a security system for an Ohio racetrack that his company recently completed — where getting a signal from certain locations to a central station is impossible by fiber or a point-to-point wireless system. Only a wireless mesh network will work.

Unlike a point-to-point wireless system, a mesh network offers redundancy. If one node fails, the others still communicate directly or though intermediate nodes so that the video transmission continues uninterrupted. And it is important that the redundancy continues to the backhaul — the radio that sends the signal from the network to the central station. A mesh network should be designed with multiple connection paths back to the recorder. That way, should one backhaul fail or be tampered with, the system will continue to transmit vital video and/or other data.

Another major advantage of a wireless mesh network is its ability to add mobile cameras to meet immediate needs. A public safety or corporate security department can take its mobile command center to the site of an emergency, access the network and begin sending video to the central station within minutes.

Getting it Installed
When it comes to choosing a provider to design and install a wireless mesh network for video, there are two different ways to go, according to Coleman. “Folks that are in the networking and infrastructure businesses have been putting these things in for a while,” he says. “They look at life as just providing a communications path from points A to B. What (system integrators) are doing is utilizing that technology to help provide solutions that are security solutions. We are going to have a whole area of expertise that has to do with security that an infrastructure business is not going to necessarily have.”

Wireless mesh is not always the right answer for all situations. You put fiber inside a building where you need high bandwidth; but, if you have remote locations where cabling is too expensive or just impossible, then wireless mesh is the way to go. It is not a matter of going with the latest technology to future-proof your installation. It has to do with each individual application.
Look for hybrid systems — those blending fiber and wireless mesh networks — to be a very common way for government and corporate organizations to move video from the camera to the recorder in the near future. Also, look for the number of wireless mesh networks to continue to grow.

Rick Allan is the IT director of Burnsville, Minn.-based VTI Security, which also operates offices in Colorado and Wisconsin. VTI is also a member of Security-Net, a network of 24 leading independent international system integrators providing clients with a single source for all electronic security needs. The group serves clients in commercial, industrial, education, government, financial and public sector facilities across North America, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Japan, Australia and the Dominican Republic. For more information, visit the Security-Net Website at www.securty-net.com.