The No. 3-ranked U.S. defense contractor said it has teamed with New Jersey wireless start-up Flarion Technologies to draw up a plan Northrop will present to "Homeland Security" planners.
Northrop told Reuters that the company is also working with network gear leader Cisco Systems Inc. and mobile service provider Sprint PCS Group.
Northrop said the wireless system would run separately from existing commercial networks. It would be fast enough to allow police to identify suspects instantly either with fingerprint recognition technology or by taking a photo and sending it to a central office where it could be checked against existing database records.
The network, which Northrop hopes will link groups ranging from firefighters and medical workers to police and FBI agents, would allow emergency workers and police to talk to each other at the touch of a button using a walkie-talkie-like feature.
"Our first responders are the police and fire departments. They are now on the front line and we need a way for them to communicate and they're mobile," said Pat Talty, director of communications systems for Northrop Grumman's Information Technology division.
The idea of improving emergency services communications came to the fore after Sept. 11. Congress is currently working on the creation of a giant Homeland Security department last week that brings together a host of previously competing agencies.
The U.S. government has yet to reveal detailed plans for upgrading communication systems and federal contractors are mostly keeping their plans to themselves.
"The defense companies are positioning themselves for the forthcoming communications system work for homeland security but they are being very quiet about it for competitive reasons," JSA Research analyst Paul Nisbet said.
President George W. Bush has proposed an additional $3.5 billion grant for U.S. emergency services, covering everything from training to communications improvements between local emergency services. Justice Department and FBI budget proposals also include spending on systems related to information sharing.
It is still unclear how much money will be earmarked for upgrading the emergency communications system, but Nisbet estimated the kitty could reach into the billions.
Northrop said it chose Flarion's proprietary system based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) over more conventional mobile phone technology because it can reach higher speeds and work better with backup satellite systems.
Northrop estimated the Flarion system could cost about $2 billion to install, excluding phone devices and maintenance.
The devices should be cheaper than radios currently used by emergency personnel because conventional handheld computers could be adapted for the network, Talty said.
The contractor said that a satellite system could be important to reconnect wireless network equipment in the event that phone lines in the ground are damaged. On Sept. 11, mobile phone service was disrupted in Lower Manhattan because on the ground network linking wireless equipment was damaged.
"The Flarion technology lends itself to this because you don't have to do frequency replanning to join the mobile network to the satellite. With the Department of Defense you have to work every scenario," Talty said. Replanning refers to the time-consuming task of adjusting equipment to different frequencies when the original equipment has failed.
The government has not set a specific timeframe for a network upgrade. Northrop and Flarion say they could install the system within two years from now, assuming that it takes a year for a contract to set-up and awarded.
While Sprint is the first network to join with Northrop, Talty said he expects other U.S. mobile service providers to eventually come on board in order to create a truly national system.
Talty said that spare airwave capacity already under control of the U.S. government could be allotted to the project.