Today, in most cities and towns, each department has its own radio communications network. Typically these networks operate independently and are not compatible with each other.
The lack of radio interoperability has been identified as a problem in early responses to recent disasters. In the aftermath of, relief efforts were a mess in part because first responders were unable to communicate with each other. The lack of radio interoperability also was a problem , when firefighters and police struggled to stay in touch over department networks that were incompatible with each other.
Cisco's communications system, called the Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration Systems, or IPics, uses software to connect existing radio and cell phone networks over an IP network. Radio and cell phone conversations from various networks are converted into IP packets, and that traffic is sent over the existing IP-based data network. The packet data is then converted back to voice so that it can be heard over any and all of the participating networks.
Many local agencies have contemplated replacing old radios with newer ones that are compatible with radio systems used by other departments and agencies--often a very costly process. Cisco executives said IPics will allow agencies to continue to use existing equipment, saving them the expense of replacing an entire system.
"We haven't announced pricing yet, but I think it's compelling given the alternative," Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's chief development officer, said at press event in New York City where the technology was introduced. "It will probably be about 10 cents to the dollar when compared to replacing radios. That's a bargain."
IPics is expected to be ship commercially in the first half of 2006. Cisco is already testing the solution in several cities. The city of Honolulu is among those testing the technology.
"The lesson from Hurricane Katrina was communication, communication, communication," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann of Honolulu. "Public safety has to be a priority. Then we can go to constituents and start talking about investments that have to be made in upgrading the networks."
Cisco has focused much of the early development and marketing efforts for IPics on government agencies, but also sees it being adapted for use in large companies.
The first iteration of the product will focus strictly on overcoming the radio interoperability problem, but because the system is based on IP, the company plans to integrate other types of communication, such as instant messaging and automated alerts, into IPics products.
Integration of this sort, for example, would allow a dispatcher at a public-safety headquarters to write an instant message alert, which could be broadcast to handsets in the field as a voice alert.
Cisco also is working on developing a system that would send alerts automatically should certain emergencies arise, such as a chemical leak or a security breach in which an unauthorized individual attempted to break into a secured facility.