The Web has become an everyday utility to so many Americans that government IT leaders may feel pressure to grow their network to accommodate employees who are accustomed to connecting securely to the Internet even if they're remote.

Michigan wanted to achieve that goal, but in 2007, the state's IT environment wasn't ready to provide that level of service delivery. Though the Michigan Department of Information Technology (MDIT) served 19 departments, back then, different offices had different wireless equipment. The state lacked enterprisewide policies or standards for wireless networks, and wireless coverage was confined to fiber-connected offices.

"We had different products from different manufacturers, and they weren't working very well together," said Rhea Linn, the wireless LAN project manager for the department's Office of Telecommunications. "And they were past their shelf life, so to speak."

These problems motivated the MDIT to centralize the wireless network under one unified network and create enterprise policies. Leaders like Linn and Jack Harris, director of telecommunications, put a team together to work on the wireless LAN project, an effort to expand coverage on a platform that's safer and easier to manage. The solution was implemented in May 2007, and today 16 locations in the state have wireless LAN services.

"We had to have a secure solution that our clients could use. Otherwise, our clients would be off installing their own solutions that would not be secure," Harris said. "We must have a secured and acceptable solution that the client can point to and use - and use happily to keep them from trying to engineer their own thing on the sly."

And new state employees likely prefer the type of broadband environment they've been accustomed to using outside of work.

"The new students coming in who are taking state jobs are used to having free Wi-Fi at the university, and it was easy. They liked the portability," Harris said. "More and more state employees are using laptops."

Costs and Benefits

Many people refer to the current Michigan wireless infrastructure as Version 2. The Version 1 environment left much to be desired in many agencies - and not just technically. A huge sticking point was the cost agencies paid for using Version 1.

The state spent more effort and money servicing disparate wireless systems in Version 1 than the MDIT liked. But a single solution means less money must be spent on maintenance and installation. In Version 2, the MDIT rolled Wi-Fi capability into the managed LAN service to the participating agencies.

"At no additional charge, we could put Wi-Fi access in points in their conference rooms, hallways [or] gathering places," Harris said, "and there's a one-time charge that they pay for an RF survey of the building, but after that, it's rolled into their managed LAN."

An RF, or radio frequency, survey identifies behavior of radio waves in an area before installing a wireless access point.

The cost to run Version 1 was estimated at $3,696 per month, including the $31 monthly charge per user, and about $93,677 per year for staff support and overhead. But the cost to run Version 2 is staggeringly low by comparison - $105 a month, including a $1.25 monthly charge per user, and $14,989 per year in staff support and overhead. Harris said he's heard that customers are happy with savings in the new environment.

"We knew right away that it was too cost-prohibitive," Linn said of Version 1. "And people were not going to want to roll it."

Linn spearheaded much of the technical development and was part of the initial design team - 13 people responsible for design, product research and installation. During this early phase, the group set up a pilot site with other MDIT agencies to hammer out issues like operational parameters and call-center procedures for customers with wireless problems.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.