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In-vehicle connectivity: 9 important considerations when choosing a mobile router

Today’s patrol vehicle needs a high-performance mobile router solution that securely connects mission critical applications and mobile assets

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In a patrol vehicle environment, a mobile router is essential infrastructure.

By Dale Stockton

Law enforcement runs on actionable information and that is why you will find a computer in virtually every patrol vehicle on the road. There was a time when this type of computing power was limited to officers assigned to a desk while field officers had to conduct inquiries by radio, but today’s patrol officers have access to a wide range of data sources and capabilities.

In addition to providing query access to extensive regional and national databases such as CJIS, in-car computers support mission-essential functions like computer-aided dispatch, control of license plate reader systems and video units, and, increasingly, access to devices tied to the Internet of Things (IoT). Properly equipped, mobile computers are a powerful force multiplier, providing increased situational awareness capabilities and serving as an operational hub for today’s first responders.

Although the mobile computer is the most visible part of this effort, agencies must consider another key component if they want to take full advantage of today’s technology. That component is a mobile router. The basic function of routers is generally well known since they’re found in most households and facilitate the connection to the internet. However, in a patrol vehicle environment, a mobile router is essential infrastructure and performs many additional tasks such as providing a secure vehicle area network and managing the connection of multiple devices. Here are some important considerations when selecting a mobile router:

1. Ruggedness

Few operational environments are as challenging as those found in public safety. Temperature and humidity extremes, rough treatment and expectation of always-on reliability are a given. Ideally, look for equipment that is certified for shock/vibration in accordance with MIL STD 810G and SAE J1455 standards and has an IP rating for dust- and water-resistance that is consistent with your working conditions.

2. Flexibility to support multiple devices

There is usually a need to support both wireless and wired devices. For wired devices, it is important to have multiple ports that provide different types of connections thereby providing greater capability. Connection types that are commonly used include 10/100/1000 Ethernet, RS-232 serial and USB. Another important feature is provision for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server connectivity.

3. Security is a priority

The increased use of mobile devices and IOT connections has created a significant security challenge since each is a point of vulnerability. A mobile environment requires comprehensive edge security that protects the network, users and devices, whether accessing the cloud or on-premise servers. Mobile routers play a key role in security and should have effective authentication protocols, onboard encryption and firewall utilization to ensure access is limited to authorized personnel. It is appropriate to ask any vendor under consideration if they have a dedicated department that oversees and coordinates security efforts.

4. Utilization of multiple frequency bands

Public safety routers need the ability to operate on a wide range of frequency bands because cellular technology is evolving, and carriers can operate on different bands. Ensure compatibility with those bands relevant to your operation and ask about upgrade potential as systems evolve. Also consider whether you need dual-sim capability, which allows for switching between cellular carriers. This is particularly beneficial for agencies that cover large geographic areas where carrier coverage may vary depending on location. If your agency is moving to FirstNet or contemplating doing so, then you’ll need a FirstNet-ready router.

5. Simultaneous WLAN connectivity

To ensure reliable, always-on mobile connections, a mobile router should be capable of taking advantage of more than one WLAN link using user-configured criteria (network priority, signal strength, cost, etc.) to determine the most effective option. Flexibility is key.

6. Onboard GPS

A mobile router with built-in GPS supports real-time vehicle location as well as telematics reporting, both of which can play a key role in officer safety.

7. Cloud-based device management

A cloud-based device management system enables IT staff to manage and support mobile devices much more effectively. Centralized configuration, device monitoring and software upgrades can all be handled on a fleet-wide basis thereby saving significant staff time and IT-related costs. Police vehicles are meant to be on the road and the more support that can be provided remotely, the better. A cloud management layer also supports added functionality such as geofencing, telematics and advanced security.

8. Expansion capability

Depending on an agency’s long-term plan, it may be appropriate to consider expansion capability such as adding a modem and Ethernet ports. A good mobile router can be costly, so you want to make sure your initial purchase will meet your requirements down the road and not require a premature replacement. A modular design will provide options as needs emerge.

9. Reputation and reliability

Check with other agencies as to their vendor experience. In particular, ask about responsiveness and overall customer support. If you have a good relationship with your cellular carrier, ask for their input and a referral to other agencies with similar operational requirements. Cops are good at learning from each other. Leverage your contacts.

If you haven’t done a recent assessment of your vehicle-based technology, it’s time to ask your IT staff to review the tech environment and operation of your vehicle-related mobile devices. There may be real opportunities to increase capabilities and operational up-time by using a properly spec’d mobile router. It can also be a meaningful step toward improving the security of your network, something that should be a priority for every public safety leader.

About the author

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards and training. Dale is the former editor-in-chief of Law Officer Magazine and is the founder of Below 100.