Cisco aims at public safety market with push-to-talk technology

Cisco Systems Inc. is helping organizations address interoperability issues between disparate radio systems and improve safety and security with a tool that uses the Internet to integrate two-way radios with other voice and data applications.

The networking giant Monday announced the Cisco Internet Protocol Interoperability and Communications System (IPICS) that allows companies to connect both proprietary-based and standards-based two-way radios over a single network. Targeted at the public safety market — the largest user group of push-to-talk devices — the system includes server hardware and software, push-to-talk management centre (PMC) application and Voice over IP XML services.

Cisco Systems chief development officer Charles Giancarlo said it is difficult for public safety personnel like fire and police, for example, to communicate with one another because of different radio frequencies, modulation and signaling techniques across radio systems.

“The issue is interoperability of all these systems together,” said Giancarlo, who made the announcement via a live Webcast to press and analysts. “Because of lack of interoperability, we can lose billions of dollars in productivity, quality of life in terms of safety and security and most importantly we put at risk thousands of lives where we can’t have communication across these different environments.”

Ambulance attendants, for example, can access patient information such as drug allergies and pre-existing medical conditions before they arrive at the hospital.

The IPICS system is the third phase of Cisco’s roadmap for application-based networking systems that began in 2003 with the integration of video, voice and data across a system of networks. While there’s market demand for push-to-talk devices in the public safety sector, the technology currently accounts for approximately three to five per cent of the telecom market in Canada and the U.S., according to the Seaboard Group.

“The stream for push to talk is a data stream which makes it good for what Cisco is doing, which is to integrate that data with other relevant information,” said Brian Sharwood, analyst with the Seaboard Group in Toronto. IPICS also allows push-to-talk radios to interoperate with analog phones and other IP-based wired and wireless devices like cell phones, laptops, PDAs, IP phones and Instant Messaging (IM) clients.

Telus was the first in Canada to release CDMA-based push-to-talk devices, followed by Bell. Rogers has said it is not interested in entering the push-to-talk market. Motorola continues to dominate the push-to-talk space with a lion’s share of the handset market in North America. Motorola, however, lacks the networking gear, making vendors like them potential acquisition targets for Cisco to round out its offering, said Roberta Fox, analyst, Fox Group in Toronto.

“My first question was, where are the strategic relationships with the wireless set manufacturers?” Fox said in response to Monday’s announcement. “But if it’s going to IP phones it’s sort of irrelevant.”

Fox added this is a smart move on Cisco’s behalf as the public sector tends to have long ownership cycles compared to the private sector.

Giancarlo said Cisco chose the IP network as the platform because of its proven resiliency through various disasters over the last decade. Organizations also get the benefit of legacy protection of existing applications and protocols and the ability to add new capabilities as cited above.

“The use of IP in this environment provides lots of opportunities in the future for those organizations to continue to leverage the investments they’ve made,” said Giancarlo. “We believe it’s the interoperability protocol of the future for public safety.”

IPICS is currently available to select customers in the U.S. and Europe and will be available for general release over the next six to 12 months.

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