No strings attached
- By Michael Hardy
- Sep 27, 2004
While the Republican National Convention overran parts of New York City a few weeks ago, members of the National Guard stood ready with new communications capabilities that they were giving a trial run.
If a situation developed that called for the National Guard's intervention, they could have used the new package of solutions to bounce signals off satellites, communicate with other emergency personnel regardless of what equipment they had, and otherwise maintain communications in an environment in which it would normally be difficult to do so.
Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW Government Inc., said customers' ordering patterns reflect an increasing comfort level with innovative communications technology.
"Wireless is a very hot area," he said. "It's not just wireless on [Research in Motion Ltd.] BlackBerry devices. It's not just wireless data. It's the whole convergence of computing and communications that's happening around the industry."
Enterprise wireless data services in general are becoming more common governmentwide, said Chris Hill, vice president of government markets at AT&T Wireless.
"A lot of technologies are starting to bridge satellite communications to terrestrial [systems] to 802.11 [wireless] networks," he said.
The adoption of the new technology is fastest, however, in agencies, such as law enforcement, that have urgent needs for cutting-edge communications, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. Otherwise, agency officials "are being appropriately cautious," he said.
The National Guard initiative is only one example of the increasing importance of and
innovation behind wireless communications. Vendors are exploring new capabilities and officials are showing an increasing willingness to try them out, as the technology proves to be more reliable and secure than skeptics originally thought.
National Guard plans for complete disaster
National Guard officials had already tested the Joint CONUS Communication Support Environment (JCCSE) at the Democratic convention in Boston in July and in an exercise in Missouri before using it in New York, said Lt. Col. Tom Smith, who is leading the project. CONUS refers to the continental United States.
The solution includes technology from Cisco Systems Inc., iDirect Technologies Inc. and Raytheon Co. Officials at the Missouri Army National Guard took the lead on development, under Smith's direction. Using IP and 802.11 and 802.16 wireless standards, officials designed the solution to facilitate communications even if no commercial power or communications facilities were available.
The solution was developed in a matter of weeks when the Missouri Guard began preparing for the annual Joint User Interoperable Communications Exercise, which was held in August, Smith said.
"The exercise itself changed its orientation about 30 days out from execution," Smith said. "The original plan was to, in a test environment, try out the new technologies." The elevated terrorist threat level earlier this year, though, pushed officials to strive for something that could link existing telecommunications capabilities to the guard's IP infrastructure.
"We went from concept to construction in 28 days," he said. "That's not typical of the government." Now, Smith is working to implement the solution at guard units in at least 12 states before the Nov. 2 elections.
Smith said vendor partners were instrumental in the system's design. Margaret Kneeland, a Cisco regional manager responsible for the federal side of the business, said officials at agencies such as the Homeland Security Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and NASA have expressed interest in JCCSE.
"We've put this together thinking about a [Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack] situation," she said. "If these had been designed when [those attacks] came around, everybody could have talked at the same time on the same frequency."
Using the solution, officials in an operations center are connected by wireless laptops with voice-over-IP capabilities. Using Cisco's server technology, they can communicate with first responders using voice-over-IP telephones. Raytheon's cross-banding technology extends the reach of the network to police and fire departments using traditional communications equipment, Smith said.
The solution will allow officials to extend the National Guard's existing wide-area network, GuardNet, to first responders, state capital facilities, state emergency management officials and appropriate federal agencies, using satellite communications so they are not dependent on an Earth-bound infrastructure, he said.
It is an expansion of the way wireless technologies are generally used, Smith said. "The Guard is an innovator in that regard."
Avaya Inc. officials are fine-tuning a new system in partnership with Motorola Inc. and Proxim Corp. that extends IP telephony so that a user can begin a wireless phone call using a wireless local-area network (WLAN) and move to other buildings or even away from the workplace altogether without losing or interrupting the call.
Developers are testing the system, and officials expect it to become available later this year, said Mack Leathurby, marketing director for technical alliances at Avaya. Company officials recently announced the availability of the needed infrastructure components.
Even within a building, dead spots can drop cellular calls, Leathurby said. Cellular calls also incur roaming charges. Wi-Fi networks, however, depend on nearby access points.
Avaya's solution, using a standard called Session Initiation Protocol, can switch the user from the Wi-Fi network to the cellular system without interruption, he said.
Although it seems like a convenience feature rather than a critical capability, Leathurby said, federal officials have shown considerable interest in the product.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand," he said. "A lot of people may be in large buildings roaming between floors. When we
look at IP telephony [in general], that's taking off quite well in the government."
The system is designed to incorporate strong security measures, including data encryption, Leathurby added.
Avaya's solution is based on the W310 WLAN Gateway and the W110 WLAN Access Point products and a specialized Motorola phone. It is not a quick installation, and existing wireless implementations may become redundant.
Officials at Intel Corp., best known for its microprocessors, have opened an information clearinghouse in Chantilly, Va., to provide information about wireless technologies. Engineers at the center will test the compatibility and interoperability of wireless networking products.
Intel officials are working with vendor partners on the center, but they don't have financial arrangements with any of them, company officials said. The goal is to clear up misconceptions and provide information to integrators and others who use the technologies, said Kevin Quinn, an official in Intel's federal-sector marketing division.
Organization managers, including those in federal agencies, are getting pressure from employees, who are increasingly installing wireless networks at home. Often, employees set up access points without telling their bosses.
Therefore, access points within the walls of agencies are "sanctioned or unsanctioned," Quinn said. "People are becoming frustrated with what they're not getting from their [information technology] department."
There are examples of agencies or state and local governments doing innovative projects. It's increasingly common, Quinn said, for tablet PCs to replace clipboards, so that officials can gather data at remote locations and flow it wirelessly into a central computer.
"Sometimes, it's to adhere to a federal mandate," he said. "In some cases, they're trying to provide new capabilities."
At Intel's Chantilly center, engineers will evaluate technologies for elements such as compliance with Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, a cryptography standard, and then direct agency requirements to components and vendors that can fulfill them. The center's work, for now, will be limited to WLAN technologies, Quinn added, not cellular or other wireless devices.
The preparatory work is still under way, said Mathew Taylor, a solutions specialist who will run the center. That work includes the launch of a Web site that will provide access to the center's findings and to more detailed information from various vendors about specific products. Once there is some experience, and potentially greater involvement from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the offerings may expand.
"The goal is to walk before we run," Taylor said. "This is an extensible framework."