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Wireless network set for Pittsburgh rivers

| Sunday, June 17, 2012, 8:14 p.m.

Several local agencies are teaming up to create a wireless network on Allegheny County's rivers, the first of its kind.

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission is taking the lead on the project, which also will involve the Army Corps of Engineers and Carnegie Mellon University.

The network will cost $1.3 million, funded in part by a $975,000 federal Port Security grant. The Port of Pittsburgh will match $325,000.

CONXX Pennsylvania Inc., a Johnstown company chosen by a five-member board after bidding, will construct the network, which will be available on cellphones, iPads and other wireless technology.

"What this is going to be is a communication system along the waterways, particularly at locks and dams," said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. "It will also link together port security cameras."

Initially, the network's coverage area will extend from the Emsworth Dam on the Ohio River to the Braddock Dam on the Monongahela River to Lock No. 2, by Sharpsburg, on the Allegheny River.

McCarville added that the infrastructure will allow innovation, with private companies and universities developing technology for use on the network. The regional district of the Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, has begun digitizing its system in anticipation of the network.

Private companies, such as towing firms, would pay for access to the network just as a private consumer would pay for access to broadband. Profits from subscriptions would be used to fund the expansion of the original coverage area.

"It's being established so that the network can grow out from the original area that we have it in," said Rex Woodward, commissioner with the Port of Pittsburgh.

McCarville said that other cities and private companies have been in touch about using Pittsburgh's networks as a model, but he declined to say which.

A Carnegie Mellon team has developed technology that will take advantage of the network: a small, remote control boat that will measure electrical conductivity and temperature in the water.

"I see information management as a pretty critical item these days, and first and foremost that's what this is: a means of gathering data, collecting it, housing it and allowing people to have access to it," said David Nakles, a CMU civil and environmental engineering professor who has worked with the port commission.

Another possible use for the network is via applications such as one developed by the port commission that allows boaters to navigate dams in a manner similar to pilots landing with instruments.

"The types of apps that are going to change navigation and other industries haven't been written yet," McCarville said. "It's like imagining what you could do with an iPad before an iPad was built. You could probably imagine a number of things, but you couldn't imagine a million applications that people write, many of them free."

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