Airborne data

Here’s how to sort through the options for broadband wireless services

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a network of 187 coastal water-level sensing stations nationwide to compile tide and currents tables. Those tables help keep private boats and commercial ships from running aground.

But because of their remote locations, not every station can link to headquarters via telephone lines. In such cases, NOAA relies on high-speed wireless data services from a variety of providers to send water-level readings to a central collection center every six minutes. NOAA uses multiple carriers, including Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless, for those data services because ubiquitous wireless coverage is not yet a reality.

Warren Krug, a NOAA electronics technician, said he is patient with vendors that continue efforts to plug gaps in their geographical coverage areas. He is less forgiving of providers who fail to provide consistent customer service. NOAA officials often know about network problems long before the carriers inform them.

“We know when a server goes down because we see dropped data or poor data” throughput, Krug said. “We’d like the carriers [to] be a little more proactive with maybe [sending] an e-mail saying there’s a problem.”

Welcome to the still-maturing world of broadband wireless data services. Consultants, systems integrators and federal officials who rely on the increasingly popular offerings say those services are technologically impressive but at times frustratingly immature.

On the plus side, the fastest of today’s services, known as 3G — for third generation — can help mobile workers to be almost as productive as when they’re connected via landline broadband services, such as DSL or cable modems. And although some service disruptions occur, such as those experienced by NOAA, the major carriers generally get high marks for reliability. Because 3G transmissions travel via private cellular networks, they’re also more secure than public Wi-Fi wireless data networks.

Expansion problems with 3G remain, however. Because carriers are still extending their geographical coverage, service from a single provider might not be available for an agency’s multiple field locations. Other complaints from federal users focus on pricing plans tailored to music-streaming consumers rather than government agencies. Lapses in customer support during 3G installations and when network problems occur are additional causes for complaints.

When choosing among 3G platforms, users must endure an onslaught of claims and counterclaims from service providers about which is best. One 3G platform is the more established Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO), an updated Code Division Multiple Access radio standard that Sprint and Verizon Wireless use. It has theoretical top speeds of about 2.5 megabits/sec. The other platform is High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) from Global System for Mobile Communications network providers such as Cingular. It has theoretical speeds as fast as 3 megabits/sec.

How should government agencies cope with competing standards? Ignore the debate, said Bill Hughes, a principal analyst at digital communications consultant In-Stat.

“There are people who have near religious fervor about one standard or the other,” Hughes said. “But as far as the end user is concerned, both are fast and both have similar latency [levels]. Purists can tell the difference, but to the end user they are relatively insignificant.”

Instead, five other factors are more important for agencies to consider when they begin shopping for 3G service.

1. Location is everything
Geographical coverage continues to be a decisive factor for agencies when they pick a provider, Hughes said. But the choices are not always clear. “There never has been and there never will be a completely ubiquitous wireless solution,” he said.

Patchwork coverage can be a problem, particularly for large agencies with field offices nationwide. Maps available at carriers’ Web sites show the coverage of broadband networks, but they are not always accurate.

To gauge quality-of-service levels, agencies should run test projects before signing a long-term contract, said Mark Adams, chief architect of networks at Northrop Grumman Information Technology. “Pilot [projects] allow you to put 10 fire trucks and five police cars in one area and see if the service is going to support the kind of applications you want to run,” Adams said.

Another approach is to stitch together services from multiple carriers into a single data network using connectivity software that establishes multicarrier connections, he said.

If two carriers use the same 3G technology, the switch is transparent to the user. But users will have to swap 3G modems in their device if the different carriers’ 3G services are incompatible.

For consistency’s sake, agencies can program the software that individual devices such as handsets and 3G-equipped PCs use so that their security credentials apply for each network standard, he added.

2. Speeds may vary
Like voice quality on cellular phone calls, 3G data speeds can vary depending on the mobile user’s location. So HSDPA download speeds might be 400 kilobits/sec to 700 kilobits/sec, with uplink rates about half those levels. Speeds can drop further if coverage gaps or network problems interrupt transmissions from the 3G network. They might fall as low as previous-generation standards, such as 1xRTT on EV-DO or HSDPA’s Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution, which runs at speeds as slow as 60 kilobits/sec to 70 kilobits/sec.

Such variances might be an annoying inconvenience or a deal breaker, depending on whether the mobile application sends basic text messages or large multimedia files. “One of the frustrations about [3G] is that even though it’s pretty good for routine e-mail, if you are sending or receiving large attachments, it can be very slow,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “And junk e-mail or messages with large attachments that aren’t a high priority will slow you down when you are downloading e-mail.”

3. Public vs. private networks
Agencies shouldn’t automatically opt for consumer services that use public wireless networks but may not offer the performance necessary for critical uses, such as public safety or homeland security. “When vendors try to sell their service to the government, the government many times doesn’t realize one size doesn’t fit all,” Adams said.

Instead, some agencies might need to create private 3G wireless data networks across a campus or region, similar to private wired wide-area networks used governmentwide. Agencies should also consider marrying 3G with other wireless technologies, such as secure Wi-Fi hot spots using 4.9 GHz spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission recently allocated for public safety uses. The dedicated channel separates traffic from unlicensed and high-traffic Wi-Fi spectrum used by the general public. Agencies can send local traffic to those dedicated Wi-Fi hot spots and keep 3G channels open for critical data, Adams said.

4. Security concerns
Agencies need to consider the costs of upgrading their telecommunications infrastructure when they’re shopping for 3G services. They should include costs for authenticating people who try to use broadband networks to access agency applications.

“Back-end security is key,” said Jim Russo, telecom manager at the Office of Service Development and Delivery in the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. Adams added that for sensitive but unclassified information, software encryption programs provide acceptable security. Agencies communicating classified information should opt for stronger hardware encryption devices, he said.

5. Bottom-line issues
Service-contract pricing for 3G remains an obstacle for government agencies. On the surface, 3G plans appear economical. Some plans charge $50 to $60 a month per user, but the details of those plans can yield financial surprises, Russo said.

“You may buy a plan at $55.99 for 500 minutes for 100 users,” Russo said. “But half of those people use only 200 minutes a month, and they still get charged $55.99. So you are paying 30 cents a minute. At the same time, some power users are using 1,000 minutes a month, and they’re getting charged overage charges. So their effective cost per minute may be even higher. Even though you are getting what looks like a good rate on the service [for individuals], you may be paying much higher than that as an agency.”

Many federal managers say they would prefer agencywide or departmentwide pricing with usage thresholds. The agency would pay a set per-minute charge for as much as, say, 1,000 minutes and a higher rate over that amount, Russo said.

“The government is struggling with how to buy purely commercial services geared for people downloading [cellular phone] ring tones and playing games rather than using them for the business of government, and that’s a big challenge,” Russo said. Efforts are under way to use the government’s strategic sourcing initiative to address those concerns, he added.

In the meantime, agencies can look for economies of scale for 3G hardware and services through three main GSA programs. First, the GSA schedules include 3G providers. Schedule contracts are best for commodity items such as 3G modems and handsets, which agencies can purchase via GSA Advantage, the agency’s electronic buying tool, Russo said.

Second, governmentwide acquisitions contracts provide another way to obtain systems integration services.

A third choice is telecom programs, such as FTS 2001, which offers a comprehensive package of 3G services, equipment and integration work. Networx, which will replace the expiring FTS 2001 contract next year, will offer 3G wireless products and services.

Many uses for 3GThird-generation (3G) wireless services provide real-world data throughput that approaches DSL and cable-modem speeds. What can public-sector agencies do with that capability? The options range from raising general productivity to offering specialized applications that satisfy unique needs.

Fast 3G data services allow traveling workers to report from the field and access the same information that’s available to them when they’re in the office, without the frustration of long transmission times with dial-up connections or madly hunting for the nearest Wi-Fi hot spot.

More specialized uses include security and field-service applications. “We’re beginning to see a large spike in interest for automated vehicle-location applications and mapping systems to help agencies understand where their assets are,” said Mark Adams, chief architect of networks at Northrop Grumman Information Technology.

Other uses include applications that stream video from security cameras and sensors in far-flung locations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses such technologies to track ocean waves and currents.

Some agencies are evaluating 3G for continuity-of-operations plans, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, a federal IT consulting firm. He relies on it for that reason. “There are times when I’m the only one able to get e-mail because the office network has gone down. I just switch to my [3G] capability.”

Military branches and agencies that manage teams of field inspectors also can benefit from high-speed wireless connections, said Bill Hughes, principal analyst at digital communications consulting firm In-Stat. “An environmental inspector, for example, can complete the report in real time without having to travel back into the office. They can get more done in a given amount of time.”

However, some agencies might fight internal political battles as they try to balance the productivity benefits of 3G with fluid pricing trends. “An IT person’s political nemesis can sit there and say, ‘If you just waited six months, you would have saved 5 percent on the cost of the service,’ and that may be true,” Hughes said. But when you’re talking about making inspectors twice as productive, who cares about that minor price difference, he asked.

— Alan Joch.

Faster versions to comeAs third-generation wireless capabilities continue to evolve, carriers promise that in the months ahead, faster versions of Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) and High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) standards will boost data-throughput speeds.

In the United States, carriers plan to replace the current version of EV-DO, dubbed Rev. 0, with Rev. A, which is already operating in Japan. The new revision promises reduced latency times and better service for voice-over-IP and video applications. Rev. A offers download data rates that are more than 0.5 megabits/sec faster than current rates, which reach about 2.5 megabits/sec at best, said Bernie McMonagle, associate director of federal government data solutions at Verizon Wireless, an EV-DO carrier.

In the competing camp, HSDPA vendors promise similar evolutionary enhancements in the next year, including High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA), said Chris Hill, vice president of government solutions at Cingular Wireless. HSUPA claims theoretical uplink speeds of 5.76 megabits/sec.

As the name implies, the HSUPA protocol doesn’t apply to downlinks. Nevertheless, the faster speeds promise greater efficiencies for business travelers, service employees and public-safety officials who need to communicate critical information from the field. An application involving unmanned remote sensors doesn’t require the acceleration that HSUPA provides.

For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses sensors to send small blocks of data on tides and currents at regularly scheduled intervals.

— Alan Joch.

Gearing up to use 3GIn addition to choosing a service provider, agencies will need some new gear to start using third-generation wireless broadband.

Traditionally users have had two choices to connect to a 3G data network. They could use a personal digital assistant or smart phone that has a built-in wireless modem. Or they could use a laptop PC that has a 3G wireless PC Card in its expansion slot.

Now two more ways are possible. Mobile workers have the option of using a USB cable to connect a 3G-equipped PDA or smart phone to a PC. The PDA or smart phone serves double duty. One minute it can be a device for wireless voice communications. The next minute it can be a conduit for sending high-speed data to the laptop, which has the advantages of a larger screen and keyboard.

“We recommend that power users buy a mobile voice device [with wireless modem] and a card for their laptop,” said Michael Maiorana, national vice president for government operations at Verizon Wireless. Besides supporting simultaneous voice and data connections, that arrangement ensures that the laptop can still connect to the wireless service even when the PDA or phone modem is unavailable or out of commission.

Another new 3G choice comes from laptop manufacturers, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, which offer new models with built-in 3G modems. The tricky part for 3G buyers will be matching their laptop to their service provider. If you change carriers, you might need to buy a new laptop or resort to the more traditional PC Card approach.

— Alan Joch.

Smart Shopper TipsGet the government angle
A good place for agencies to start comparison shopping is the GSA Wireless Store www.gsa.gov/ wirelessstore, which is a Web portal with information about third-generation wireless services and traditional cellular and satellite-communications services.

Does it play in Peoria?
Geographical coverage is critical to choosing the right third-generation wireless carrier. Because network implementations are not yet complete, check carrier Web sites to view the latest coverage areas. Go to FCW.com Download’s Data Call at www.fcw.com/download for links to Web pages that show carriers’ coverage areas.

Double-check those references
When checking reference accounts, pay particular attention to customer service. Some government wireless data users say that such service can fall short when agencies need help programming new devices or receiving alerts about network outages.

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