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Coalition takes aim at police wireless market

Panasonic is teaming up with a coalition of wireless companies to make crime pay a little bit more--for them.

Panasonic is teaming up with a coalition of wireless companies to make crime pay a little bit more--for them.

Sierra Wireless and AT&T Wireless, along with wireless provider Aether Systems and wireless network software maker PadCom, announced this week they will put their products into one package geared for law enforcement agencies.

The coalition of wireless companies believe they've combined their products to offer an industry first: Police will be able to simultaneously use both a wide area network, which is typically used to beam Internet access en masse to thousands of people, and a local area network, which has a more specific number of users and has the higher speed.

Police departments are among the earliest adopters of wireless technology, dating back to early radios in police cars. Using wireless technologies, police can sit in their squad cars and do things they would normally have to go back to precinct headquarters to do, such as research files on suspects, view mug shots or in some instances look at court records.

The wireless industry has taken notice and crowded police precincts with a variety of mobile communications offers.

But this all comes with a heavy price tag. Some analysts estimate it costs about $5 million to outfit a police department in a moderate-sized city with wireless services. So far, about 2,800 law enforcement agencies have done business with wireless firms, according to industry sources.

"Police departments go through this all the time. Do they add another person, more equipment or more communications?" said Mark McMillan, vice president of marketing for Sierra Wireless. "Putting another body out there without the right equipment won't get the job done."

Panasonic will provide the laptops. Wireless modems will be provided by Sierra Wireless. Software maker Padcom's programming will let the laptops work on both wide area networks, which are used to beam wireless access to a wide area, and local area networks, the same type of wireless access in airports or hotels.

The Baltimore is the first city to equip its department's squad cars with the wireless coalition's technology, McMillan said. The Orange County Sheriff Department, in Southern California, is in the process of installing the same systems, he said, and he believes other departments will follow.

All of the wireless companies in the coalition have worked previously with police departments. In fact, AT&T Wireless is already working with Aether Systems to offer PocketBlue service, which lets police officials use handheld computers like a Palm or Blackberry to connect with the department's database to check on criminals or suspects. A handful of police are using Aether Systems' PocketBlue system, which is expected to be offered nationally soon. PocketBlue operates on the AT&T Wireless network and costs $90 a month.