Nov 05 2008

Wireless Broadband to the Rescue

Agencies go beyond wireless hot spots to provide critical network connectivity anytime, anywhere.

Wireless broadband service may be becoming ubiquitous, now that the major telecommunications carriers have begun bulking up their third-generation cellular network rollouts, but establishing 3G connectivity marks only the starting point for an agency deploying it.

Truly successful rollouts hinge on smart, secure integration of the anytime, anywhere connectivity with an organization’s most critical applications, say IT project leaders at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Navy. These agencies should know: Both have undertaken agencywide broadband initiatives.

Wireless broadband offers opportunities to improve mobile access, says Shiv K. Bakhshi, director of mobile device technology and trends at IDC. “While there will always be a place for Wi-Fi connectivity, the great merit of mobile broadband is that it liberates the user from the spatial tyranny of the so-called hot spot. Organizations that capitalize on that freedom will come out ahead.”

Officials from the ATF and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet team say success with their initiatives took time, and they had to overcome specific challenges during rollout:

Coverage. Ensuring optimal coverage across the United States requires a great deal of planning. ATF chose a solution that automatically homes in on an area’s strongest wireless network and connects over that, while the NMCI team studies users’ travel and application requirements before issuing an air card.

“We do an analysis: Where do you plan to go? Does Verizon have coverage or Sprint have coverage? Which one works best for you?” says Greg Johnson, manager of information assurance and network services for contractor EDS. “Only then do we issue them a card and set up their software.”

LESSON: Make sure through careful upfront planning for network coverage that the service satisfies end users’

connectivity needs and that they take to the new service quickly.

Security. The more-mobile user creates a more risky environment for information assurance. “Without a virtual private network in place, we wouldn’t have been able to do this,” explains ATF’s Larry Bell, deputy assistant director and deputy assistant CIO. “Security is a priority, especially when it comes to law enforcement.”

LESSON: Require encrypted links across the Internet via secure VPN tunnels, either Secure Sockets Layer or Internet Protocol Security (IPsec).

Complexity. Johnson says rolling out air cards for different notebook computers, with different operating systems and applications, creates an integration challenge. “It’s a hardware/software solution, and the delivery of the drivers and the applications to make it work were tough,” he says, noting that NMCI uses both Microsoft Windows XP and Windows 2000 on its notebooks.

LESSON: Be ready to test and retest your pilot service before ramping up use. “It’s often challenging to get the drivers to be compatible with what you have in terms of an OS and their applications. It takes a great deal of regression testing, so you need to plan for that,” Johnson says.

Commercial mind-set. NMCI ran into some roadblocks with the carriers because wireless broadband applications primarily target consumers. “They’ve got an abundance of tools built into these applications aimed at the standard commercial or home user, and they assume everyone has administrative rights on the notebook,” Johnson says.

LESSON: Expect that your IT team will have to tweak and customize code to make the carrier’s tools fit agency requirements and to protect agency systems and data. “We ended up having to go in and customize the interface of the application for our users, and that was a challenge,” he says.

Feedback. At ATF, Bell’s team holds a meeting once a week with the agents doing the pilots. “We have a

teleconference call, so any requirement changes come right out of the field. If they’re having a problem or they need something different to improve their performance, then we hear about it right away.”


Productivity gain that ATF estimates its agents achieve through broadband wireless connectivity

LESSON: Keep in constant contact with end users to learn first-hand about how the service is working and how well any adjustments resolve problems that users or IT discover.

Training. Users will have a new and far more intense ability to access applications, and they might not know quite how to handle that. “The wireless part was fairly straightforward,” Bell says. “But it was the use of the system, getting into a database and sharing information with each other that was difficult for users.”

LESSON: Plan for training up front and for helping users adjust to the cultural shift of collaborating on the fly in the field.

Despite the challenges, ultimately IT and users in the Navy and ATF came to find the wireless broadband service indispensable. “It’s not just a nice-to-have; it’s necessary to meet the mission,” the Navy’s Riley says.

At ATF, Bell says users keep asking for more connectivity. The bureau has begun a project to expand its initial service, which linked agents with bureau data.

“We’re working with other law enforcement agencies so that we can access their systems wherever we are,” Bell says. “One of the great things about agents is you give them a tool, and they find new uses for it and immediately start to push the envelope. And we’re trying to keep up.”