Yakima County, located east of Washington's Cascade Mountains, spans more than 4,000 square miles, much of which are rural and agricultural. Because of proximity to the Canadian border, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, smuggling routes cut through several Washington counties, including Yakima. Those counties have been designated high-intensity drug trafficking areas (HIDTA) by the federal government.
For several years, Yakima County has run a 650-square-mile Wi-Fi network that enables data sharing between Lower Yakima Valley and east valley law enforcement agencies. The network allows the agencies to quickly pull information, such as mug shots and traffic reports, from other departments' records management systems in a cost-efficient manner.
"It's a great way to communicate between departments," said Kelly Rosenow, chief of the Toppenish Police Department. "We can access the stuff from the Yakima County sheriff's department, and they can access our files from their patrol cars."
Several federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, can also access data through the Wi-Fi network using passwords.
"They can't do any modification," said Rosenow. "But they can go in through a password and look up people's names, mug shots and stuff like that."
Though the Wi-Fi network has benefited law enforcement agencies in many ways since it was deployed, it was installed for more pragmatic reasons.
"The public safety network got started because we had a very expensive telephonic network that was costing us a fortune," said George Helton, senior director of technology services for Yakima County.
"The question was asked, 'Can we do it another way?'" he said. "We could put up this public safety network and provide coverage, do some mobile work with it, and it wouldn't cost us any more than our current network does. In fact, if we got it up right, we might even operate it for less."
The county designed an 802.11b network using a series of radios and antennas with five backbone sites and approximately 30 Cisco Aironet wireless bridges.
"It originally was conceived as a data network -- a point-to-point data network to tie all the police departments back to the county law and justice system," said Helton. "That's what it was originally conceived of. Then we put out some omnis [omni-directional antennas] to see how it would work, and it worked very, very well."
Since the original deployment, Helton said many more antennas have been added, allowing three cities in the lower valley to use the Wi-Fi network to access data from their patrol cars.
The sheriff's patrol cars, however, can't use the network's wireless capabilities to access the county's network. Instead they use general packet radio service (GPRS).
"The public safety network only covers 650 square miles," said Helton. "Our county is many, many thousands of square miles, so the Sheriff's Office is on GPRS because they need data coverage from one end of the county to the other.
"They need to be able to be way out in the sticks and get data," he said. "The network is not large enough to cover all those areas yet."
GPRS gives sheriff's deputies mobile access to their system, which is connected wirelessly on the back end to police departments on the public safety network via the Buena precinct in the lower valley and the Terrace Heights precinct in the east valley.
"Overall, the county's wireless has been a huge benefit for us," said Dave Thompson, chief criminal deputy for the Yakima Sheriff's Office, explaining that using the network for data exchange has saved them the ongoing costs of wiring the precincts telephonically to exchange data. "There's huge cost-savings."
Yakima County's flat valley floor makes such a long-range Wi-Fi network feasible, Helton said, and the network is reliable and secure -- but that doesn't mean the county hasn't faced a few challenges in keeping it that way.
"We were one of the first ones in the space," said Helton. "802's not licensed, so we're in the public spectrum, and wireless ISPs are cropping up everywhere. In the beginning, we coordinated with the ISPs very carefully. Now there are more than a dozen in our county, so there's a lot of competition for that air space."
An engineer was hired to address interference and related challenges, but Helton said the county has been waiting for the FCC to clear spectrum for public safety operations and will re-engineer the network to leave the public space as soon as the county can afford it.
Even though the FCC has designated spectrum for public safety networks, Helton said once the spectrum is available, it could be a while before the county can move out of the unlicensed spectrum.
"The big issue for us is that we're a very poor county. We have a $3.9 million budget shortfall this year, so we don't have money to spend on fancy systems," he said. "We're really relying on the FCC to open those frequencies up in a manner that there's a lot of competition, so a lot of vendors can compete so the price will be low."
The network has been compromised only once, said Helton.
"Nothing bad happened. I think it was just some kid," Helton said. "Once he got into it, he was just in and out. He just proved he could get in and got out. But it was enough for us to have to spend several thousand dollars to lock it down further."
Helton said the security hole was patched immediately, and the county is now installing a remote authentication dial-in user service server -- which authenticates and authorizes remote network users -- for added security.
Toppenish's Rosenow said reception for squad cars has also been a challenge at times. To remedy the problem, Rosenow said the city has committed to purchasing equipment to cover dead spots in the city when they are encountered.
Network users have shared in the costs, said Helton, and lots of improvements have been made since the original deployment.
A federal HIDTA grant paid for part of the original deployment, which was approximately $70,000, he said, and the jurisdictions that use the network pitched in to pay the remainder.
"All of the jurisdictions worked in just a wonderful manner. All the city councils agreed. The police chiefs all cooperated. Everyone cooperated -- the public works departments -- so we could build this network for very little money. If they hadn't cooperated, we couldn't have done it," Helton said. "I'm proud of the community and the county for seeing the benefit of this and making it happen."
To improve network efficiency, Helton said the county is installing fiber and cutting the network into cells. He said doing so will decrease broadcast traffic, which can constitute as much as 70 percent of traffic on such a large network.
"It's overhead. It's not data," he said. "There's a certain amount of talking it has to do. It's radios communicating with radios, saying, 'I'm still here. Are you there?'"
Helton said now that the network is divided into cells, the radio-to-radio traffic that occurred because of communication between backbone sites will be reduced, minimizing broadcast traffic.
"Instead of being pointed at each other, [the nodes] will be pointed back at the fiber," he said. "It also provides us with a lot of redundancy, because if one cell goes down now, all the others stay up. It's more reliable, it moves more data, and it's quicker."