By Monica Mendoza
Rivada Networks in Colorado Springs is getting people talking.
Firefighters are talking to police. The National Guard is talking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army is talking to the local sheriff, the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
It wasn’t always this way.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, when New York City firefighters ran into the collapsing twin towers, Rivada Networks has been on a mission to create a way for first-responders to talk to each other at disaster scenes.
In a world where satellite, cellular and Internet communications are everyday, first responders at many disaster scenes are still virtually tongue-tied.
That’s because many agencies still use different networks and technology that are incompatible, said Rob Needham, Rivada Networks’ vice president.
For example, when a bridge collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, first responders from several agencies on both sides of the river couldn’t communicate by radio or cell phone and were forced to rely on bullhorns to communicate, he said.
In response, Rivada has built a portable, stand-alone command center that uses off-the-shelf technology and does not rely on commercial communication.
The idea is that when telephone and cellular lines are down or jammed during a disaster, first responders can roll in, set up an antenna, flip a switch and everyone within a certain radius can speak to each other. All of the equipment is compact, with the largest units being about five-feet high and the smallest units folding into a backpack for use in remote disasters like a wildfire.
“Imagine if you will a bubble of voice, video and data, in a very, very large area, that enables everyone within that bubble to be able to talk to each other using Internet protocol,” Needham said. “But remember the world doesn’t operate on IP, they operate on radio. So, we have to convert radio to IP and let everyone talk to each other.”
Rivada, which has annual revenues of $21 million, has contracts with the Louisiana National Guard, the Los Angels Police Department, the city of New York and the Army’s Northern Command on Peterson Air Force Base.
The magic is in a device, designed by Raytheon, which allows a cell phone to talk to a radio or a radio to communicate with any disparate device. They call it interoperability –- a buzzword in the public-safety sector.
Rivada was started in 2004 with public safety communications as its sole purpose.
The founder was Declan Ganley, whose brother-in-law was a New York firefighter who lost most of his crew when the twin towers collapsed. Ganley, already a mover in the communications world in Europe, launched Rivada Networks and began his crusade to solve the communications problem. U.S. Northern Command, which formed after 9/11 for homeland security anddefense missions, was his first customer.
“He used his own influence and his own money to get Rivada started,” Needham said.
Ganley argued after 9/11 that there was no need for a new public safety network, as proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. Such a network was out of the price range of public safety budgets. Instead, there was a way to use existing technology and to keep the price obtainable. Rivada’s systems range in price from $100,000 to $300,000, depending on size and radius of the bubble of communication.
Today, the future of interoperability is going rural. Rivada is taking fourth-generation mobile technology where there are no fiber-optic cables or cellular phone towers — into the bush of Alaska.
Last year, Rivada won a $30 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to install rural broadband for 30,000 residents across 90,000 square miles in southwestern Alaska. The company aims to provide high-speed Internet in the rural villages through 20 base stations that run on solar and wind power.
“A satellite dish will go into a hut in the middle of nowhere, that is the hub sending the signal,” Needham said. “Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars laying fiber optic cable when you don’t need to — you can do this all wirelessly.”
Rivada, which has 50 employees, expects to hire 250 people to work on the Alaska project. The job, scheduled to get under way in 2011, has opened up a new market for Rivada, which is now thinking about taking its system inside the tunnels of coalmines and the subways of major cities.
“That is the genesis of Rivada, to bring communications where there is no communications,” Needham said.