June 26, 2007
By Charles Waltner, News@Cisco
Cisco Systems is experiencing another case of deja vu. Just as it has done for data networks and telephone systems, the company is helping bring public safety and other radio-based communications systems into the era of the Internet.
Cisco IPICS, which stands for IP Interoperability and Collaboration System, uses technology based on Internet protocol (IP) to "translate" two-way radio signals so people using computers, telephones, cell phones and other devices can all easily communicate with each other.
By ushering two-way radios into the Internet world, organizations can not only talk on one cohesive network but they also gain the flexible capabilities that have made Web-based communications so valuable to individuals and businesses around the world.
Through software, Cisco IPICS offers such features as policy controls (for how an organization should respond to various incidents), automatic alerts (to notify the right people when an incident happens), multimedia information (such as video feeds or GPS location tracking), and virtual talk groups (for forming secure, specific incident response teams).
Two-way radios, also known commonly as "walkie-talkies" or land mobile radios (LMRs), are notorious for lacking interoperability among an array of different frequencies and flavors. Bill Hughes, a principal analyst with In-Stat, a Scottsdale, Ariz., technology research company, says Cisco IPICS has come along at a time when the two-way radio industry, which started "before the days of the Titanic," could use an upgrade.
Hughes says over the years some interoperability options have helped, such as using consoles to "patch" radio conversations into standard telephones. But these "innovations" are rather long in the tooth. "They were really cool in the 1970s," he says.
Certainly, interoperability among the myriad of two-way radios has been a concern of public safety organizations and other customers, but the 911 terrorist attacks highlighted the grave shortfall of these communications systems and has brought new attention to the problem, Hughes says.
Over the last few years, digital radios have entered the market with the promise of providing an open standard for interoperation among all manufacturers and models. But Hughes says that effort, known as "Project 25," is not achieving its goal.
The massive global two-way radio market is dominated by Motorola Inc., with a scattering of other companies selling radios, dispatcher consoles, and support services. Equipment sales alone for two-way radios add up to $3 billion worldwide, Hughes says. Each radio costs $1,000 to $2,000 or more, he adds. Cisco estimates the potential market for its IPICS product line to be over $1 billion.
Public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, make up about one-third of the market, with other categories such as utility, transportation, natural resources, maintenance, and manufacturing comprise the balance of sales.
Marthin De Beer, head of the IPICS group, says Cisco's technology offers a cost-effective alternative to upgrading radios. A new radio system can cost a typical public safety organization hundreds of thousands of dollars while guaranteeing few interoperability or other functional improvements. "On their own radios lack the multimedia communications and management capabilities of modern networks," he says.
The ascent of communications based on the language of the Internet has not gone unnoticed in the two-way radio industry. There are now various "gateway" products that can convert radio waves into digital ones and zeros for travel on the Internet and other networks, but Hughes says Cisco IPICS "is one step better" than these tools. And IPICS is steadily improving. Recently, Cisco released version 2.0, bringing new capabilities and refinements to the nascent product.
Boulder County, Colo., typifies the reasons organizations are turning to Cisco IPICS. While its two-way radios for county operations and its sheriff's department still dependably handle the vast majority of communications, Boulder County realized two-way radios do have their shortcomings. "In this day and age we need a system that can support data and software to manage events," says Chuck Pringle, division chief of the Boulder County sheriff's office. "Simple voice communications isn't enough."
With this in mind, Boulder County, which sits in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, last year searched the market for products that could consolidate its radio communications under a more flexible system. It was surprised to find few options, and Cisco was the only vendor that provided what the organization was looking for. "IPICS offers the one-stop shopping we wanted for interoperability as well as command-and-control functions," Pringle says.
He adds that the county's "reasonable" investment in Cisco IPICS is now helping improve the county's coordination of services while offering flexibility for adding new software-based applications and functions. "We're just scratching the surface of what IPICS can do for us," Pringle says.
In addition to "first responders," other types of organizations are also finding IPICS to be a boon to improving their operations. For example, Bryant University, Smithfield, R.I., is streamlining its campus management with the multimedia communications tool. "We're like a town, and IPICS is helping simplify our day-to-day work by taking out the middleman." says Art Gloster, vice president of information systems at the 3,600-student university.
Whether for coordinating such mundane tasks as building maintenance or responding to such life-threatening situations as a fire, Gloster says Cisco IPICS is eliminating the need to manually translate and relay radio messages to management personnel in an office or at home.
Aside from the initial tuning required to link various radios with IPICS, he says the product has operated as promised. "While it gets attention for its potential to save lives, it has been great for our everyday use," Gloster adds. Bryant is even using inexpensive consumer-grade, two-way radios as part of its IPICS communications system, saving the university significant equipment costs.
Cisco IPICS is proving particularly adept at centralizing the communications and management for just about any kind of organization working across any distance. Cisco, for example, uses the networking tool to coordinate its own worldwide corporate safety, security, and emergency response operations. With IPICS, managers can monitor and manage the local communications to an incident response as if they were actually at the local site, even if it is halfway around the globe.
Building a New Market
Hughes stresses that interoperability, especially among various public services entities, is as much an operational issue as it is a technological one. While products such as Cisco IPICS can certainly help bridge barriers, each organization must establish the proper procedures, policies, and practices to make inter-agency operations successful.
Nevertheless, IPICS offers Cisco "a great opportunity to fill some holes left by changes in the market," Hughes says. Its biggest challenge will be in sales. The radio market is a separate world from Cisco's familiar networking business.
Cisco will need to find partners that understand both the two-way radio market as well as networking technology. "Cisco needs to bridge both these worlds," Hughes says. With that challenge in mind, Cisco has so far recruited more than a dozen consulting and sales companies that have such dual expertise.
De Beer admits that Cisco was "a little ahead of the market" with the IPICS concept, but the need for communications interoperability and better operational management continues to be a major concern for public safety organizations. Cisco's growing understanding of the market coupled with the evolving sophistication of IPICS is now building encouraging sales momentum, De Beer says.
Though he would not reveal specific numbers, De Beer says Cisco has doubled the number of IPICS customers over the last six months. He says its new sales partners and better knowledge about funding projects through government channels is also helping. To that end, Cisco has established a program aimed at assisting customers in grant education. Cisco has also sponsored a Web site to help customers find the various grants available to them for communications systems upgrades. "Federal and state governments are offering a lot of funds to help local public safety organizations improve their communications infrastructure," De Beer says. "But finding and acquiring these funds can be challenging."
Most of all, Cisco believes its Internet technologies can provide the same revolutionary changes to public safety and two-way radios that they have for other traditional communications methods. But, in this case, the stakes are a higher and the promised benefits more profound.
"Faster and better communications can not only save money. It can save lives, and that's what IPICS is all about," De Beer says.
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer Piedmont, Calif.