“I think a lot of folks look at network connectivity as an IT thing, but to us, it’s a mission thing,” says Adriane Burton, CIO of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Jul 23 2020

Agencies Upgrade Connectivity as Their Networks Expand

HRSA, VA and the Marine Corps are among those boosting wireless access points and other needs.

At the Health Resources and Services Administration, CIO Adriane Burton was confident that her organization was prepared for telework. Network infrastructure upgrades had gotten the staff through minor weather emergencies in the past.

HRSA, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, had upgraded the network infrastructure at its headquarters in Rockville, Md., in 2015, increasing its backbone capacity, implementing VoIP and adding VPN concentrators and Wi-Fi capability throughout the building.

“Those improvements allowed us to become a lot more mobile,” says Burton, whose agency funds health centers that provide care to historically underserved and medically vulnerable populations.

In the building, HRSA staffers could undock their laptops and rely on Wi-Fi whenever they needed to attend a meeting. And on those occasions when they had to work from home — during a snowstorm, for example — they logged in to the office through a VPN.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam in early March and employees began to work from home full time, Burton recalls, 

“We knew we'd be fine for weeks and months, so that was reassuring.”

As agencies rely more on portable devices, and as connectivity is tested by everything from pandemics to the ever-expanding Internet of Things, many other agencies are also investing in upgrades to their network infrastructures.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for example, is installing dozens of brand new wireless access points at its Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, Calif. 

Similarly, the FBI is using the Sierra Wireless AirLink Raven RV50X industrial LTE gateway to add LTE capability at its academy in Quantico, Va.

The path to success for many federal agencies as they ramp up their infrastructures to meet future connectivity needs is also likely to include investments in systems and services orchestration, says Ray Mota, CEO and principal analyst with ACG Research.

“Without orchestration, it becomes an IT nightmare,” Mota says. “There’s too much to manage, and it’s too expensive. Orchestration is going to be the new norm going forward.”

HSRA Ensures Users Can Telework to Support Mission

HRSA did have to pull together some quick measures to support its staff’s connectivity remotely — every employee began working from home March 16.

“We wanted to ensure people had the resources they needed, like videos on how to use certain tools,” Burton says. That included Microsoft SharePoint and Skype for Business, which the agency deploys for collaboration purposes and web conferencing.

Her team also developed an online portal where staff could access these instructional materials and produced a “telework checklist” with details on how to use the VPN and how to get remote IT support through HRSA’s asset management system, LANDesk.

Less than two weeks later, the agency faced its first major operational test. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allotted $1.5 billion to support health centers with coronavirus-related initiatives, and HRSA distributed the money.

The process required HRSA staff to review all the applications and communicate remotely with about 3,000 grantees. They did it using every tool in their connectivity toolbox, primarily Adobe Connect, the ­web-conferencing and desktop-sharing software suite.

“I think a lot of folks look at network connectivity as an IT thing,” Burton says, “but to us, it’s a mission thing. Without this technology and this infrastructure, not only would we not be working right now, but that money also wouldn’t be going out to help fight this pandemic.”

READ MORE: Find out how to make telework successful at your agency.

Marines, VA Use Connectivity to Support Sprawling Operations   

At Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, Marines are relying on telecom, video and digital voice and data technologies in addition to their traditional ground radio networks.

This “data-side” equipment, as Lt. Col. Koichi Takagi, the assistant chief of staff (G6) for communications and information systems, describes it, includes commercial VoIP phones and servers that have been modified to be suitable for the military environment. Used with tools like VPNs and the Marine Corps Enterprise Network, the technology “stitches us all together.

Adriane Burton, CIO, Health Resources and Services Administration
I think a lot of folks look at network connectivity as an IT thing, but to us, it’s a mission thing.”

Adriane Burton CIO, Health Resources and Services Administration

“We can have a training unit here at Camp Pendleton conducting real-time coordination and mission planning with another unit anywhere in the world,” Takagi says.

Another agency devoting significant resources to ensuring seamless connectivity across its sprawling operations is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA maintains about 140,000 ­wireless access points in its more than 1,300 healthcare facilities and regional benefits offices and constantly adds to that ­number.

The key drivers for that expansion, and other agency IT modernization efforts, “are the need for higher bandwidth availability and the increased mobility in those spaces,” says Eddie Pool, executive director of infrastructure operations in the agency’s Office of Information and Technology.

The VA has made upgrading its Wi-Fi infrastructure a central part of its digital transformation–focused Enterprise Roadmap, which lays out a plan for providing high-density coverage for high-throughput data devices such as laptops, smartphones and telehealth applications.

“When COVID-19 hit,” Pool says, “much of this work was well underway. We basically just accelerated what we were doing.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Learn about the technology behind videoconferencing tools and how to keep them running.

VA Upgrades Networks to Deliver Seamless Patient Care

It hasn’t been easy, Pool admits, but the wireless access points, VPNs (the agency runs Citrix Access Gateway) and other solutions that the VA OIT used have been more than up to the task.

In response to the crisis, the agency has deployed “Mobile Vet Centers” and opened new buildings, including a hospital in Garland, Texas. Pool’s team has ensured that these facilities have the connectivity they need for patient care.

140,000

The number of wireless access points used by the Department of Veterans Affairs

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

The team also implemented all the technologies necessary to enable nonclinical workers to do their jobs from home, and it scaled up the agency’s VA Video Connect system to meet the rising need for telehealth services.

COVID-19 put the VA’s systems to the test, Pool says, but it also presented the agency with an opportunity to optimize how it delivers services and connects its people and operations. “From an IT perspective, it’s been nothing short of exceptional.”

Lisa Fleet; kingwin/Getty Images