June 21, 2004
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Courtrooms Go Wireless to Deliver Testimony and Evidence

The modern courtroom is a hub of information: multiple monitors are used to display evidence and testimony to jurors and the judge, while lawyers use notebooks to control their presentations. Yet most courtrooms are made of thick stone and expensive woods, so cabling is out. "We want to keep the ambiance of the older courtroom look. Technology just doesn't lend itself to that," says John Byram, chief engineer of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. "You can't just blast the marble to put in the conduits."

That's where wireless comes in. The Ninth Circuit Court, the state court system that serves Orange and Osceola Counties (home to Orlando and Kissimmee, respectively), has recently deployed wireless presentation systems in its main courthouses and is following suit in several dozen facilities throughout the two counties. In the Ninth Circuit's deployment, the main courthouse's courtrooms have six to eight LCD panels (about one for every two jurors, as well as for the judge and lawyers) to display evidence and testimony, as well as the projection equipment and the lawyers' laptop docks. Court proceedings can also be digitally recorded, with the voice files wirelessly transmitted to remote stenographers, as well as available for immediate playback in the courtroom.

Even if damage to the courtrooms wasn't an issue, wiring all those systems would both complex and expensive, says Byram. And there's an additional wrinkle: Judges like to change the presentation setup based on the cases' individual needs and their preferences for conducting a trial, so the equipment location is not static.

To handle this need, the district uses a combination of fiber-optic backbones to a central presentation control room and wireless distribution using Avocent's KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) technology and Cisco Systems access points in the courtrooms. Commands from the lawyers' Windows laptops are relayed to an 802.11a access point in the courtroom, which then transmits the signals over a fiber connection to the control room elsewhere in the building. (802.11a provides higher bandwidth over the more commonly deployed 802.11b technology and uses spectrum that is less prone to interference, although it also has a shorter transmission range. The Avocent system also includes a special link layer for the wireless hardware to optimize audio and video transmission and to enhance data security over wireless.)

The control room's systems serve up the video, audio, or other media, sending it back to the courtroom's access point, which then distributes it to the various LCD panels. Much of the KVM equipment, access point, and video equipment sit on a cart, so they can be easily moved to other courtrooms. Newer courtrooms come with video cameras and microphones to support videoconferencing, which allows remote testimony and, more important because of the significant savings in personnel and transportation costs, remote arraignment of suspects from the jails rather than in person at the courtrooms.

The court began testing the system four months ago in the main, 23-story courthouse in Orlando. The wireless cost is roughly $1,000 per node, "which is much less expensive than the construction cost" of hard-wiring the systems, Byram says, especially in older, stately courthouses such as Kissimmee's. Over the next year, Byram expects to see the juvenile court, two jail facilities, and three outlying courthouses deploy the wireless system, covering 15 courtrooms in Kissimmee and 37 in Orlando.

Byram, who also consults for other court systems, says interest in such technology is very high throughout the country, especially due to an early prototype system, known as Project 21 developed by William & Mary College, for the Williamsburg, Va., courthouse. This courtroom has been used as a testbed for courtroom technologies since the mid-1990s, and the college actively promotes such technologies to courts throughout the country.

One of the next steps, Byram hopes, is the definition of a wireless RS-232 standard. The RS-232 protocol is an old one long used for serial devices such as external modems, mice, touch screens, and many specialty instruments. Many vendors have developed wireless modules to transmit the RS-232 signals over the air, but there is no standard implementation, which Byram believes is necessary for wireless touch-screen terminals to become widely used.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

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