Posted by: Peter Burrows on October 24, 2005
“IP Everywhere” has been Cisco Systems’ mantra for two decades now. The idea hasn’t just been that every corner of the world should be wired to provide access to “the Internet”—that thing we all log onto from our PCs to access web sites on the World Wide Web. It’s that all of our communications networks — wired and celluar phone systems, broadcast and cable TV networks, private corporate data networks — should use the same underlying technical lingua franca: the “Internet Protocol.”
No doubt, the argument makes great sense—on paper, anyway. Carriers that fork over the billions to build IP-only networks would be able to handle any kind of digitizable content, from basic voice-over-Internet-Protocol phone calls to HDTV movie streams, over one set of pipes. More important, those carriers would be able to merge all those modes of communication in powerful new ways—from allowing couch potatos to automatically pause the football game when the phone rings, to letting Moms ensure that emergency phone calls from their kids get forwarded to their cell-phones, or converted into instant messages and sent to a PC.
But alas, the world is not going to jump into the all-IP future all at once--a lesson that Cisco seems to be learning. In the past, Cisco evangelized the Net with a religious fervor, recommending that companies throw out non-IP gear they'd already purchased to get in step with the future. But consider Cisco's new IPICS system, announced today in New York. The system, which stands for Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaboration System, lets even old-school, decades-old devices talk to each other, by converting transmissions into IP form and then reconverting them back into a form the receiving device can understand.
Initially, IPICS is being targetted at public service agencies such as police departments, fire departments and hospitals which over the years have typically invested in self-enclosed radio-based networks that offered safe, secure "push-to-talk" modes of communication--but no ability to reach out to others. Using IPICS, such devices--from the cabbie's dispatch radio to a policeman's walkie-talkie--could be hard-wired, with just a few clicks of a mouse, to reach a far broader directory of contacts. In case of an emergency, for example, a cop could call his dispatcher and ask to be patched in with the local fire department and hospital. Or the connection could be made at the organizational level--something that would have been useful in the wake of Katrina, to coordinate the efforts of state and federal emergency-response agencies.
If Cisco is right, agencies that opt to deploy IPICs will be able to roll-out this capability at 1/10th of the cost of replacing their existing gear with IP-only alternatives. "To replace all the radio systems in the US [with new-fangled IP-based devices] would cost $30 billion," says Cisco chief development officer Charlie Giancarlo. That's in part because this approach could also hold down operating costs--such as the training cost to show personnel how to use entirely new mobile devices.
If helping public safety personnel talk with each other during emergencies is an obvious current need, Giancarlo thinks IPICS could ultimately be applied to a far larger market. While it's currently limited to melding voice-based systems, in the future it will also be able to deal with data and video. That way, that policeman could stream a video of an injured person to the paramedic on call, so he can get care instructions while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. And there could be a large corporate market, as well--say, to allow a companies to link their security cameras to the fire department. That way, fire fighters could get a real-time view of what's happening before entering a burning building.