How far does one camera feed go – to a dispatcher or monitoring station? What if it could go to every security vehicle in an organization – giving security personnel minute-by-minute updates on what’s happening and where their services are most needed? With wireless mesh, it can, and more.

 Wireless mesh networks really shine in unconventional installations where normal surveillance strategies just aren’t practical or even feasible. Perhaps an organization is located in an isolated area, and installing masses of fiber optic cable is too expensive. Or in high-crime areas, security executives worry about camera cables being cut. In some instances, they just want more from their security surveillance. This is when they turn to mesh.

In Port Angeles, Wash., two years of rigorous grant writing and hoop-jumping resulted in a mesh network that serves the entire city of 19,300 people. As Port Angeles is an active international port, Police Chief Terry Gallagher is continually concerned about the threat of terrorism. However, he only has 32 authorized police officers to patrol the port and city. With 234 wireless access points (WAPs) built with $2.6 million in Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant money, those officers can use the entire city as a Wi-Fi hotspot – connecting to the Internet through the wireless mesh to send transmissions and reports, gather information, watch surveillance video and communicate between squad cars without potential criminals listening in on police blotters. 

Forty-seven of those WAPS connect directly to fiber optic cable and will be used to “backhaul” data to, for example, the 911 emergency dispatch center, Gallagher says.

However a key part of the Port Angeles installation was that the BTOP funds had to be used to provide open access to the mesh network, which isn’t the Internet in and of itself, but, as Gallagher says, “a pathway to the Internet.” 

“As a way of moving information from one of my police cars to the station or another police car, our current way of doing this is air cards, or cell cards,” he says. “An air card is like sipping water through a straw, and a mesh network is like getting it through a fire hose, in terms of moving information. And public safety is all about information – How fast can we get it and how fast can we deploy it to forces in the field that have to make these critical decisions for the community.”

Port Angeles also received $400,000 in FEMA port security funds to replace the 18 analog cameras along the waterfront with a 28-camera digital system. Another grant from Stone Garden put cameras in all of the police squad cars. 

“What the mesh allows is for the digital images from those cameras to be accessed from any police car anywhere in Port Angeles,” Gallagher says. “So when an officer is on the extreme south end of our city, the farthest away from the port, that officer can click on any camera in the system and virtually patrol any other area in the city through the mesh. 

“The mesh makes our officers tremendously more efficient, and in an age when we’re not going to be able to hire more officers, anything we can do to increase their efficiency contributes greatly to the public safety of the community,” he continues.

Similarly, just a short drive away, the city of Seattle is deploying a new mesh of its own to help alleviate some of the pressure from cell towers, especially during events such as holidays or festivals. 

“When we have large-scale events such as Fourth of July, we’ll have a large concentration of people in a small area,” says Seattle Detective Monty Moss, one of the grant-writers for the city’s mesh network. “Historically, cell towers in those areas become overwhelmed and knock cell service offline. As a department, we depend upon cellular technology for police vehicles, for commanders to have access to situational awareness and management so they can make an informed decision. If they can’t communicate that, it really makes things difficult,” he adds. 

“It’s been proven that, even with a whole lot of people using their cell phones in a small area, if we have our own network, we can continue to operate without the impact of the volume of traffic,” Moss says.

Seattle’s mesh network is a joint program with multiple first responder systems, providing additional support to firefighters getting accurate emergency medical information to EMTs or doctors at hospitals. The system also allows transit riders to use a program in certain bus stops to check the bus’s arrival time or even purchase tickets. 

Police are using the extended functionality in coordination with license plate-reading technology to constantly update databases for more accurate information – tracking amber alerts, for example. If a squad car reads a license plate early one morning and later that afternoon the same place numbers are in the system, tied to a recent abduction, the database can tie together, over the mesh, another point in the timeline. 

Across the country in Crisfield, Maryland, another mesh network is being used for extensive investigations and reducing crime. At the City of Crisfield Housing Authority, Executive Director Charles Goldsborough has installed 14 cameras on the community’s mesh network to monitor 330 low-income apartments. Both police and Goldsborough watch the monitors for known trouble events, such as large youth gatherings, evidence of drugs or people staying in the residences long-term when they are not on the lease. 

“Word gets around that we have these cameras,” Goldsborough says. “I show them to all of our new tenants, show them how we can zoom in and what we can identify, and it works as a great crime deterrent. We see more on the cameras than we do with police patrols.” 

The Fluidmesh network, integrated by Dave Lafferty of ARK Systems, has also brought some unexpected changes to the Crisfield Housing Authority, as monitors can see if tenants’ patios have excess trash or if certain known groups linger in consistent places. These extra tips help to direct resources to the appropriate location to nip crime in the bud, Goldsborough adds. 

But what clinched the mesh network decision for Crisfield was its suitability for the area. 

“We don’t have electricity capability in a lot of these areas,” Goldsborough says. “It’s probably a lot less costly as well, even though these wireless cameras are more expensive. This way, we can put them in areas where we couldn’t typically install an alarm system or something with a lot of cable.” 

“With the advent of this wireless technology – wireless mesh or LTE networks – it’s getting to the point where it’s a little silly to do a lot of trenching or hang a lot of fiber on poles,” Moss says. “It’s less and less necessary. We’re always going to have a need for a strong fiber backbone, but it’s more flexible now. You could do fiber to a certain point and then extend it with wireless to reduce cost. 

“The fiber isn’t what’s really expensive,” he adds. “The trenching, digging a conduit, polishing the glass – that’s always going to be expensive.”

And the installations in both Port Angeles and Seattle have a community component – their networks, from Aruba Networks and integrator Cascade, have the possibility for public-private partnerships.

The grant for Port Angeles specified that the mesh had to be available for residents to access the Internet, so the city bid out a contract to provide a very low-cost option to residents, especially in areas where cabling is the lowest priority. The winning bidder, local Internet provider OlyPen, can provide wireless Internet over the mesh for as little at $17.95 per month. In the main business center of Port Angeles – along the waterfront – businesses can choose to buy into the Internet access provided over the 234-access point, self-healing mesh network. 

The mesh is also helping to drive tourism to the city, as OlyPen has allowed for 12 days of free Internet every year, which the city has scheduled around its main events and festivals, as well as one hour of free Internet every day. 

In Seattle, Moss is working on expanding the mesh into underserved, higher crime areas that have called vehemently for surveillance cameras in the past.
“By building out networks in these areas, we would have the potential to provide some peace-of-mind for surveillance, better monitoring into the community for first responders, as well as offering some public Wi-Fi, so neighborhoods can customize a welcome page to the area, showing points of interest and giving easy directions, which helps to increase the number of visitors and the level of neighborhood ownership,” Moss says. “With a multi-faceted program like this, everybody wins.”

This article was previously published in the print magazine as "Cutting the Wires on Surveillance."