The Road for Wireless Widens

Whether it's to cut costs, increase public safety or boost worker performance, the public sector is looking to broaden use of wireless technology -- but don't call it an enterprise platform just yet.

by / May 12, 2004
Clearly governments are showing more interest in wireless data. According to the Center for Digital Government, public-sector wireless projects in the United States generated twice as many RFPs in 2003 as in 2002. Just as workers in the private sector use wireless computers to retrieve assignments, access data from corporate networks and send e-mail while away from their desks, growing numbers of government employees are also benefiting from untethered digital communications.

The role wireless plays in a CIO's technology strategy depends, in part, on where that CIO is sitting. The state capitol view is different from the city hall view.

"In my opinion, we're definitely seeing more activity, more evaluation, more potential pilots of wireless technology at the local level than with our state customers," said Michele Grisham, industry marketing manager for state and local government at Cisco Systems. Working with tight budgets, states these days can make investments only where absolutely necessary, she said. "Wireless, in many cases, is seen as a nice-to-have instead of a critical budget requirement. That's been a real issue over the last couple of years."

Carolyn Walton, former executive CIO of Arkansas, agreed that states have been slower to adopt wireless technology. "I'd hesitate to speculate on why," she said. But one possible reason is that city and county governments perform more activities, such as building code enforcement, that send workers into the field. Among state employees who work in the field, however, the pressing need for wireless isn't clear unless it applies to public safety or health, said Walton, who since being interviewed, left the executive CIO position to work in the private sector.

State governments have been as quick as local ones to recognize the power of wireless, but a state must get many more stakeholders to agree on a technology project, said Eugene Huang, Virginia's deputy secretary of technology. "Given the scope and scale of statewide initiatives, it takes that much longer to get things up and moving."

Enabling First Responders
States do move forward on wireless initiatives when the need is urgent and money is available. That's true, for example, in the realm of public safety and homeland security. It's no longer acceptable that police officers, firefighters and others working for different agencies can't share data and voice communications in an emergency, said Walton. In Arkansas and elsewhere, state governments are spending many millions of dollars to build interoperable wireless systems for first responders.

"The whole issue of providing communications for public safety and homeland security has moved to the No. 1 priority for Arkansas, and use of our limited dollars is going to rebuilding and providing a wireless information network that will, in phases, bring all of these players into a common system with the ability to not only talk on their radios, but have data and video information available as well," Walton said.

Projects like that certainly have the blessings of federal officials. The federal government's SAFECOM program, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was created to encourage local, tribal, state and federal public safety agencies to develop wireless communications systems that are interoperable across jurisdictions and disciplines. SAFECOM offers both technical assistance and guidance for grant programs that foster interoperability, and it plans to offer funding of its own for demonstration projects.

Though interoperability for first responders stands at the top of Arkansas' technology to-do list, the state is also exploring other ways to strategically deploy wireless technologies. One goal is to bring the Internet's benefits to citizens in underserved regions.

All of Arkansas' public school campuses are connected to the state's wired network. By installing wireless access points on schools and other public buildings, the state could inexpensively create hotspots, offering broadband connectivity to any properly equipped computer within range of the radio signal.

A proposed state pilot would give students in rural areas laptop computers, allowing them and their parents to communicate with the school and access the Web over the Wi-Fi link. The same access points might also allow Arkansas to include more medical facilities in an existing telemedicine program, so specialists in Little Rock could monitor the progress of at-risk pregnant women in poor, rural communities.

"We're saying, 'What can we do to have lower-cost network coverage to extend this to more hospitals around the state?'" Walton said. "We're looking at wireless access points to do that."

Safety and Historic Preservation
Like Arkansas, Virginia is developing an interoperable wireless voice and data network for state and local agencies. The state is also working on the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN), a joint effort with Maryland and the District of Columbia to develop an integrated data and voice network for public safety and transportation in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

That project poses an interesting challenge for Virginia. Because it focuses on an urban area, CapWIN is developing a wireless network that operates in the 800 MHz band -- a good choice for that environment, Huang said. The statewide network, which must serve both urban and rural communities, will operate in the 700 MHz band. No one wants public safety officers in northern Virginia to carry multiple radios or computers to operate on the two systems. Participants are still working to resolve this, Huang said.

Along with these statewide and interstate initiatives, Virginia has focused on wireless as a platform for everyday intraoffice computing. Currently Wi-Fi is limited in state offices, Huang said. "It was started in the historic buildings that are situated through the state government campus, primarily because you can't run category five wiring through a historic building." The state is adding new Wi-Fi access points during a renovation of historic buildings on the Capitol Square campus.

Wireless LAN technology could gain a more prominent role in state offices over the next three to five years, as emerging technology boosts data rates on the wireless link from the current maximum of 10 Mbps to something more like the throughput available on the wired network, Huang said.

Virginia's Legislature also makes significant use of Wi-Fi, allowing senators and delegates to connect to their network from committee rooms and legislative chambers. "Obviously the cost of doing infrastructure upgrades and putting category five data ports in all the committee rooms and on the floor was probably cost-prohibitive," Huang said. Wireless offered a less expensive alternative.

Intraoffice Mobility
Washington state also plans to install wireless access points in its legislative building, said Michael McVicker, deputy director of operations for the Washington Department of Information Services (DIS). "The concept of carrying around a tablet or a PDA and staying connected, and not having to log off and log back on every time you want to walk three steps, is very appealing, at least at a high level."

Several Washington agencies, including the DIS, are testing Wi-Fi for use in their own offices. Employees use the technology to connect to the public Internet. "Probably the killer app on the inside is e-mail -- to be connected to your mailbox as you move around continually," McVicker said. The agency is considering different deployment models for implementation beyond the test stage, he said.

Technology officials in Washington are also exploring whether to deploy a wireless network on the state's Capitol campus for use by the general public. Washington offers a broad range of e-government services, said McVicker, and some argue that citizens visiting the campus should have access to those services, as well as publicly available government information. On the other hand, he said, the state has to cut $1 billion out of its biennial budget. "Is it appropriate to provide public Internet access on the campus, and if so, in what manner? We're still sorting that kind of issue out."

Because its mandate is to provide and support technology infrastructure -- not applications -- the DIS has no plans to deploy wireless networks in government buildings outside the Capitol campus, McVicker said. Any initiatives of that kind would come from the agencies themselves, with the DIS lending appropriate technical support, he said.

The DIS probably won't ever invest in wireless infrastructure to cover the whole state, but future mobile applications may make the state a major customer for a commercial carrier that offered wireless data service statewide, McVicker said.

Along with other states, Washington is exploring how to implement an interoperable radio system for public safety, but the major focus of that effort is on voice rather than data, McVicker said.

Cook County Extends Its Reach
Like some of their counterparts at the state level, technology officials in Cook County, Ill., look to wireless technology to provide the tools that health and safety agencies need to keep residents secure. "People are in the field every day, especially first responders," said Catherine Maras O'Leary, CIO of the county, which includes Chicago. "We want to provide all the information first responders need to perform better in the field."

Cook County is collaborating with Chicago and other municipal governments within its borders to develop a wireless data network using Wi-Fi technology. The plan is to install wireless access points on existing radio towers, providing coverage over the county's 935 square miles, Maras O'Leary said. The network will extend the reach of the county's wired network, which it already shares with municipalities.

When the Wi-Fi system is up and running, first responders in the field will wirelessly share the same information currently accessible on the wired network. "The Arlington Heights police will be able to access, in the squad car, criminal histories from the city of Chicago," Maras O'Leary said.

Officials also hope to "harden" key facilities by installing video cameras that transmit to public safety officers. This will allow agencies to monitor many more facilities without deploying people to each of them, according to Maras O'Leary.

Cook County's Wi-Fi network will also extend the reach of the enterprise network for nonemergency workers. For example, the county already shares its GIS with municipalities over the wired network. "The public works department of Arlington Heights or Schaumburg, using our GIS maps, will be able to do their coding more accurately from the wireless network," said Maras O'Leary.

Philly Seeks Metrowide Net
In Philadelphia, police already use a wireless network to query law enforcement databases, and the fire department employs wireless in an automatic vehicle location system. Some mobile workers, such as building inspectors, use wireless handheld computers to download their scheduled tasks and file inspection reports from the field.

In the past, initiatives of this kind were born in individual city departments as the need arose, said city CIO Dianah Neff. But Philadelphia is now implementing its strategic technology plan, and wireless is one of three underlying technologies -- along with GIS and the Internet -- the city considered necessary going into the future, she said. "We now have a wireless technical committee looking at it from an enterprise perspective." New wireless initiatives are emerging from a cross-departmental team that recommends pilots.

Part of the plan calls for implementing a metro-scale wireless broadband network. Most wireless data applications in the city currently employ cellular digital packet data technology, which because of its low data rate, is appropriate only for transmitting short bursts of information. The city is considering broadband "mesh" or "grid cell" technology, Neff said.

One goal of the wireless initiative is to boost productivity by giving wireless handheld computers to more field workers. Neff explained that wireless technology will also be used to encourage economic development. "We're also going to look at community and business hot zones." This means creating zones where residents and visitors can access the Internet for free with their own wireless computers to help attract people to certain parts of the city.

City-provided hotspots could also bring broadband Internet service into Philadelphia neighborhoods that commercial providers have overlooked, Neff said, which could make it easier for small businesses to take root in those neighborhoods.

Security, Cost and the Future
Whatever their reasons for developing wireless infrastructure, governments wrestle with how to protect data that crosses the airwaves. Not everyone believes wireless networks are secure enough to be entrusted with sensitive information.

In the past, concern about security has been a "show stopper," especially for public safety agencies, said Tom Bostick, executive adviser of the Internet Solutions Group at Cisco Systems.

But as security techniques improve, government officials are starting to trust them more. "It's a big issue, but it's an issue that can be demonstrated, that the proper security can be in place and they have control over it," Bostick said.

Virginia is weighing the need to economize against the need to deploy effective security on its wireless networks, said Huang. "It's balancing the tension between commercial, off-the-shelf and customized security."

For Washington state, McVicker said security is probably the biggest anxiety in wireless deployment. The state is still exploring the best techniques for protecting information that doesn't belong in the public domain, he said.

Money is also a big concern for states developing wireless technology strategies. Virginia's statewide wireless network program has gone to the state Legislature for funding several times without success, although prospects look better this year, Huang said.

Cook County is using federal homeland security funds to help build its countywide Wi-Fi system, Maras O'Leary said. The federal government encourages homeland security programs that take a regional approach, and by developing a system for use by multiple agencies and jurisdictions, Cook County meets that criterion, she said.

Bostick agreed that federal homeland security grants can fund wireless networks for public safety use, "especially when they can show there's collaboration between the city and county, and possibly state governments, where they're using the same infrastructure."

For wireless projects that offer a solid return on investment, Philadelphia can draw loans from a city-operated "productivity bank," but it must pay them back even if the project doesn't realize the expected savings, Neff said. Since the proposed metro-scale wireless network will support public safety communications, along with other functions, the city might obtain homeland security funds for that project, she said. How to fund a wireless broadband service for underserved neighborhoods is more of a puzzle. "We think there can be a case built for it, and that's what we're doing now, but you still have to come up with a funding model," she said.

Whatever role wireless data plays in government strategies today, it's sure to change as faster, more capable technologies reach the market. McVicker pointed to a technology under development called Wi-MAN (wireless metropolitan area network), which he said could offer data rates of 75 Mbps over a 25- or 30-mile radius, compared with 10 Mbps over a radius of about 100 feet with Wi-Fi now. Today, the geographical limits of Wi-Fi make it difficult to base an enterprise application on, said McVicker. For government employees inspecting dairy farms or monitoring the health of streams, Wi-Fi isn't practical. "Once the infrastructure is there, so you can move from location to location," he said, "then it becomes viable."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer