The promise of anytime/anywhere instant communication has been bandied about
for some time, but thanks to recent breakthroughs in wireless technology,
that promise is on the verge of becoming reality, albeit a still flawed
For the federal government, the next generation of mobile wireless will
produce a dramatic shift in how workers can perform their jobs, from census
takers to soldiers on the battlefield.
"It's not just a matter of being able to do what you currently do on
your desktop in a mobile and wireless environment," explained Ed Coleman,
senior manager of wireless Internet applications at Lucent Technologies.
"You're suddenly dealing with new dimensions, like time and place. Everything
is dynamic in a mobile environment."
The evolution toward true nomadic computing has been a long time coming,
but the technologies and market forces involved finally reached critical
mass within the past year. Cellular phone use topped 80 million, the Internet
gained mainstream acceptance, and wireless standards that bridge once-proprietary
technologies have come to the fore.
The most important of these, perhaps, is the Wireless Application Protocol
(WAP), an open standard that allows wireless devices to communicate independent
of vendor or wireless networks and thus more easily access information and
Another new standard, Bluetooth, uses a short-range wireless connection
to enable mobile devices such as phones, pagers, personal digital assistants
(PDAs) and notebook computers — as well as PCs, printers and network servers — to communicate with each other.
"Bluetooth is kind of like a cable replacement," said Nader Moayeri,
manager of the Wireless Communications Technologies Group at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology. "All these different tools that you
use to do your job will be able to communicate wirelessly with each other."
Meanwhile, wireless transmission standards are finally beginning to
evolve. Circuit switched networks, which establish a dedicated and uninterrupted
connection between the sender and the receiver, are being replacing by packet
switched networks, which send data much faster in noncontinuous packets
of information that are reassembled on the receiving end.
The result will be wireless data transmission rates topping 300 and
400 -kilobits/sec within the next year or two and the ability to deliver
richer and more robust services such as corporate e-mail, instant and unified
messaging, enterprise calendar management, and data collection and synchronization,
as well as some data mining and real-time transaction management.
Industry observers agree that potential buyers will finally begin to
see real movement this year. WAP-enabled phones are already on the market,
but soon-to-be-released products will come with larger, text-friendly screens
and more memory.
Palm Inc., which last year released the Palm 7, a highly successful,
wireless handheld computer that uses a radio frequency to send and receive
e-mail and to access the Internet and corporate data, expects future releases
to utilize WAP. Devices equipped with Bluetooth chips are expected to begin
hitting the market later this year. Global Packet Radio Service, a packet
switched data transmission standard, will have a limited launch in the United
States this year.
And service providers are grabbing application development partners
left and right in an attempt to find those killer solutions that mobile
users will snap up. Lucent Technologies recently teamed up with Yahoo to
develop wireless instant messaging, for example.
"It's definitely reached a point where the technologies are really taking
off," Moayeri said. "Within the next couple of years, people will be able
to experience — truly pervasive computing, where they can stay constantly
in touch with the home office as well as other resources."
Federal agencies are already beginning to ramp up in expectation of
what's known as the third generation of wireless computing.
Wanda Smith, director of the General Services Administration's Anywhere,
a governmentwide provider of wireless solutions, said that she is seeing
a lot of interest from agencies eager to develop wireless applications for
their work force.
The U.S. Postal Service, for example, which currently uses Palmtops
to scan mail labels, hopes to eventually do that wirelessly, saving their
mobile workers the time and hassle required to go back and physically sync
that information to the back office.
Others who would immediately benefit include mobile workers, such as
auditors, field inspectors and census takers, and federal executives who
can't afford to be without e-mail access and mission-critical information.
"The government is doing so much more with less, and these type of tools
will allow everyone to use the eight-hour day to the fullest extent possible
and be more productive," Smith said. "And with wireless, that means you
can sit in an airport and instead of wasting time, you can do an hour's
The Navy, which began outfitting Marines with handheld tactical devices
years ago, recently began issuing wireless Palm 7 handhelds to newly commissioned
officers in hopes of improving their mobility and productivity. "The feedback
thus far has been very positive," said Ron Turner, deputy CIO for the Navy,
adding that the Navy is "definitely interested in moving toward a wireless
The near-term future of wireless connectivity offers federal workers
a number of benefits, not the least of which is cost. With Bluetooth connectivity
between devices, for example, users saddled with pagers, cell phones, wireless
notebook modems and PDAs will now be able to make do with just one monthly
service charge. Other benefits include a better ability to track information,
better service delivery to customers and increased productivity.
Despite the ultimate vision of third-generation mobile wireless as an
instant and ubiquitous service, observers note that many hurdles still remain.
For the federal government, security issues remain a concern, despite
increasingly sophisticated encryption measures. Data transmission speeds
will remain tortuously slow until the new packet switched services get rolled
out in the next few years. And network coverage still has a long ways to
go before users can expect seamless connectivity.
"Even though the wireless phase is just truly beginning, now is the
time for federal agencies to start planning," Smith warned. "If you don't
start planning right now, it will be tough to keep up."
— Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.