The popularity of wireless technology has been increasing over the years among state legislatures. Portable computers combined with wireless LANs fit perfectly with the needs of lawmakers throughout the country.
Wireless networks deliver the same applications as their conventional counterparts, including Internet access, e-mail, word processing and presentation software -- all programs used in the daily routines of state legislators. But going wireless definitely has its advantages.
PROGRESS VERSUS HISTORY
"The reason that a number of state legislatures are using wireless computers is really twofold," said Allan Smith, manager of information systems for the Nevada Legislature. "One is that theyre in historic buildings where its difficult to run network cabling without damaging the historical quality of the building; its easier to put in a few access points inconspicuously in order to access the network."
Installing such a system requires that users insert modem cards into their laptops. These modem cards pick up signals from wireless network access points -- similar to broadcast towers -- that stand as much as a foot tall. The towers link the system together to give users a sphere of coverage. Access points are placed throughout a capitol building allowing lawmakers to connect to the network without long lines of cable running throughout the area.
"The other reason is mobility," Smith said. "In Nevada, legislators and staff are able to go from one location of the building to another without having to shut down their laptops or lose connectivity. In the case of our legislators, they can be in their offices, in the committee room or down on the floor in the chambers and they dont have to shut off their laptops [to go from one room to the next]."
THE COST OF MOBILITY
Nevada offers laptop computers to its 63 legislators and many of their staffers. Most take advantage of that during legislative sessions. The state is preparing for its third session using wireless networking by upgrading its system to the tune of $50,000. This will cover the cost of installing 25 new network access points and purchasing approximately 120 wireless modem cards. "Since we already had the infrastructure in place, all we had to do was replace the old access points with the new ones," Smith said. "So there wasnt any additional cost there.
"The way we are set up here, whether youre on the wired network or the wireless, youre really all on the same network," he said. "If Im at my laptop, I have access to everything I have as if I was on my PC."
Nevadas legislators often lacked the option of accessing the wired network because of the portability and cabling issues. "For us, it was an easy solution to [providing network access for] every single office in the building," Smith said.
But the solution came with a price. Wireless modem cards range in cost from $100 to $200 per machine, roughly twice the amount of standard network cards. In addition, wireless machines run at about one-tenth the speed of those on wired networks.
Nevada uses a T1 line for its wired network but only recently upgraded to 11Mb from 2Mb for wireless access. Still, speed hasnt been an issue for the majority of wireless users. "Mostly that would affect large document movement, large graphics, things like that," Smith said.
At the present time, Nevada legislators can only access the network from within the Capitol. But the state will soon add an antenna to the top of the building, which will allow users within a two-mile proximity to tap into the network.
RULES FOR THE RULE MAKERS
North Carolinas General Assembly also uses a wireless computer network. But the bicameral Legislature has separate regulations about laptop PC usage for its House of Representatives and Senate.
North Carolina Sen. Eric Reeves, chairman of the Senate Information Technology Committee, uses his laptop in committee rooms to type reports, take notes and review various financial reports. "Its like carrying around my notebook or my briefcase with important stuff in it," Reeves said. But under Senate rules, he cannot bring his machine with him on the chamber floor.
Thats not the case for his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Tolson.
"We are able to use our computers on the floor during session and many [legislators] do carry their computers in with them to follow the debate and make notes while theyre on the floor," said Tolson, chairman of the House Technology Committee.
Reeves said the Senate continues to debate whether computers should be used in the chamber. "We dont allow extraneous reading material, that kind of stuff. The idea is, when youre on the Senate floor and were debating bills, we really want you focusing in on the debate," he said.
Reeves admits there is potential value in using computers during debate but also realizes the risks. "I see a lot of value on both sides but the majority of our senators want to carve that time out for personal time," said Reeves. "There is a certain intrinsic value to making decisions in the public arena that deals with face-to-face debate. Otherwise, you can be completely distant or somewhere else. The sessions themselves are meant for voices and brains."
Even while not in session, legislators value their wireless computers. "It gives them the flexibility to move their laptops with them wherever they go," said Tony Goldman, director of information systems of the North Carolina General Assembly. "If members prefer to carry their laptops with them, they can certainly do it, which gives them the flexibility to have that database with them at any time."
DECREASING SPEED LIMITS
North Carolinas wireless system runs at a rate of 10Mb per second, compared to 100Mb for its wired network. "In terms of what users are seeing, its just not that perceptible of a difference at this stage of the game dealing with things like messaging and Internet access and things of that nature," Goldman said. "If you were in a large database system that was requiring to pull a lot of data over the lines, then you might see some appreciable degradation in terms of speed. But when youre dealing with e-mail and Internet access, it seems to be doing very well."
But wireless technology isnt eliminating wires in North Carolinas General Assembly. Instead, its complimenting them. "[Legislators] still have the ability to connect to cable," Goldman said. "Its not that this is replacing cable. This is in addition to cable."
Although both networks are accessible outside the chambers for North Carolinas House of Representatives, lawmakers rely on wireless access during floor sessions. "We dont have hard cable in our chambers so it gives them the ability to use their laptops in the chamber," Goldman said.
Staying at the forefront of technology is important to North Carolina. "If were going to be a leading state, then the Legislatures got to be using the technology as well," Tolson said. "Were trying to make sure its available for our members to have and to use where they see fit to help them do their jobs better as representatives or senators."
Before implementing a wireless system, legislatures face a number of considerations. For example, can lawmakers wait until they return to their desktop computer to continue their work? And how fast do they need their systems to run? Are their files so large that an 11Mb system will run too slowly? Or will they just use their wireless computers for rudimentary correspondence?
"I think what they need to consider is whether or not [wireless] is going to add anything to the service they already provide," Smith said. "If they already have a wired network in place, what are they really adding to that and is it going to help them?"