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When your vendor goes down in flames

One fire department loves its Proxim wireless videoconferencing system. However, now that Proxim is no more, it raises the question: Is sticking with a bankrupt vendor's gear an unacceptable risk?

For some organizations, increased efficiency saves operational costs. But for others, it saves lives.

That's the case for the Concord, N.C., Fire Department, following the implementation of a wireless network. However, the organization also learned a lesson about dealing with networking vendors that burn bright but flame out overnight.

One year ago, the city implemented a Proxim Corp. point-to-multipoint wireless network, linking more than 30 locations -- such as municipal buildings and fire departments -- in Concord and the neighboring municipalities of Harrisburg and Kannapolis.

Saving lives -- faster

Martin Belt, chief network engineer at Technologies Edge, the firm providing outsourced IT management for the city, said the firefighters "by far" get the most use out of the wireless network because of its ability to deliver videoconference-based training programs.

Belt said the firefighters are federally mandated to undergo extensive, ongoing training -- as much as four hours for every 24-hour shift.

Before the videoconferencing over wireless service was available, fire department units gathered at a centralized location for the training. However, emergency response times suffered during training because units were not at their base facilities.

Since the wireless network was implemented and the videoconferencing program was initiated, response times to emergency calls are an average of 30 seconds faster.

"The firefighters' response times are now under four minutes," Belt said. "That's a first in 11 years."

Going down in flames

But now that the half-a-million-dollar implementation of videoconferencing equipment, bridges and Wi-Fi is behind him, Belt said he'd do things differently had he known what was to come.

Since the city implemented its network a little over a year ago, Proxim filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In July, it sold off its assets to Falls Church, Va.-based Terabeam Wireless. Terabeam, however, has pledged to support Proxim products, and will fulfill any outstanding Proxim service agreements.

"We're certainly not thrilled that [Proxim] went belly-up, and it would have made a difference had we known this would happen," Belt said. "But we're not seeing it as a blow and it's not going to be a big problem. "

Belt said the city is stockpiling Proxim equipment for any future maintenance. Because the assets have been purchased, he said the city will still have support and be able to make any necessary repairs.

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"As things like WiMax come out, we'll make those improvements within the next five years," Belt added. "But I think we'll be able to get by without suffering through [Proxim's] demise too much."

Cause for alarm?

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing with Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc., said Proxim's financial follies should be cause for alarm, especially since the city is running mission-critical applications over the network.

Dulaney suggests Proxim customers look to third parties, such as IBM, for support as well as shorten equipment depreciation cycles while looking for viable replacements like the Cisco Systems Inc. Aironet 1400 Series.

Regardless, Belt said the city isn't looking to make any quick migrations, as it's still satisfied with the performance and reliability of the Proxim equipment.

"Taking the lessons that we've learned, I'd recommend it to anyone," he added. "We're happy with the decision to implement videoconferencing over wireless."

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