Wireless tech stirs up whirlwind of fed apps
- By L. Scott Tillett, L. Scott Tillett
- Apr 13, 1997
Advances in technology and standardization are making it easier for federal users to find off-the-shelf wireless data communications products that can help them operate more efficiently. Agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service are using wireless technology to decentralize inventory control field inspections and other information-collection tasks.
Wireless technology although a less-than-perfect solution offers federal users an alternative to traditional networks. This option becomes important for organizations faced with the challenge of wiring delicate historical buildings or transmitting important data from the field to headquarters.
Critics and proponents of wireless data alike say the industry has a long way to go in terms of offering speed and security but the technology has the potential to save agencies time and money.
The emerging market for wireless technology is populated by agencies with personnel in the field - auditors inspectors social workers and others who find they can save time by accessing records and case histories remotely. At the heart of federal wireless technology are some familiar basics: a portable computer some sort of antenna and a need to access information.
Wireless use in the federal government should also get a boost from a recently awarded governmentwide wireless pact. The eight-year $300 million Federal Wireless Telecommunications Services (FWTS) contract awarded to GTE Government Systems in November encompasses analog and digital cellular phone service and data modem devices and accessories. As it matures the contract will include paging personal communications services and mobile satellite services.
On the Way
Warren Suss a Jenkintown Pa. telecommunications analyst predicts an explosion in federal wireless use. And according to Suss the FWTS contract could help fuel that explosion.
The demand for products and services could be great. "I think the government has many uses for wireless. It really can become a very important tool for enhancing the productivity of government workers " Suss said.Those uses will become all the more important as fiscal screws continue to tighten for agencies. Budget concerns are forcing more agencies to think about how they can increase productivity and do as much - or more - with less money Suss said. Wireless technology is one way they can do that: Wireless means mobility and speed. And because time equals money greater speed means lower costs.
The Internal Revenue Service for example is already using a wireless mobile computing system to allow IRS diesel compliance officers to inspect and record diesel fuel use from the field. The Excise Fuel On-Line Network saves inspectors the time involved with sorting through paper-based fuel-use records and lets them quickly check whether a user or seller of diesel fuel has violated tax regulations in the past allowing fines or penalties to be assessed on the spot.
"With my palmtop and laptop I'm more certain about my accuracy and able to visit more sites " said diesel compliance officer Bob McWhirter. "Both advantages with mobile computing permit me to talk with more diesel fuel users about the tax laws answer their questions and foster compliance rather than stiff penalties."
Except for some software developed by system contractor ARIS Corp. Seattle the system uses off-the-shelf products: Compaq Computer Corp. laptops Hewlett-Packard Co. palmtops cellular phones Information Resource Engineering Inc. modems and Oracle Corp. Mobile Agents software. Inspectors gather information on their palmtops and then transfer the information to their laptops and transmit it to IRS offices. The laptop/cell phone combo also lets inspectors dial in and check records to see if a fuel user or vendor has fines outstanding or is a repeat offender.
Roy Lively a program analyst for the IRS' Excise Tax Division said the idea for the project came from inside the division and that it was left up to the contractor ARIS to bring all the components together.
Although the system is bugged with the traditional wireless problem of slow data-transfer rates it - and those like it - stands to operate a lot faster one day as higher-speed technology becomes more affordable and more dynamic. "As the [wireless] industry matures there are all sorts of faster-speed data services that will allow the transmission of images from the field " Suss said.
Standardization and Interoperability
Aiding a push toward maturity is international agreement to use the 2.4 GHz part of the spectrum for wireless data communications. With its acceptance in Europe as the standard for data communications the 2.4 range has emerged as a de facto common denominator.
Now with that part of the spectrum defined as a baseline industry is beginning to develop standards for products that will allow those products to interoperate.
Only since 1995 has the 2.4 GHz environment begun to emerge as a globally accepted broadcast range for sending data wirelessly said Mike Jones vice president of the Wireless LAN Alliance (WLANA). "Since that time what you're seeing increasingly are more standardized products and more products that work together from many companies."
Standardization and interoperability so far have come through strategic business partnerships and the formation of consortia and alliances such as WLANA. But a wider push for standardization is on the way from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers which is seeking to establish a base level of interoperability for wireless data communications.
Gary Mink senior business manager for OEM solutions at Lucent Technologies Inc. said that with the expected adoption of IEEE standards this year he sees lower prices coming for wireless data products. "It's a baseline for more cooperation among vendors " Mink said. "It's a baseline for bringing prices down."
Off the Shelf and on the Job
Already the growing availability of wireless solutions has caught the eye of federal users in search of efficiency.
"Now what you're seeing in the federal arena is more and more organizations looking at [wireless] " said Andy Farrell segment manager for field operations for IBM Corp.'s wireless operations. "[Wireless technology] is something that large organizations with large field forces should take a look at."
In fact agencies with large field forces or multiple remote sites are some of the first with wireless applications.
The Department of Veterans Affairs for example is using wireless tablet computers that in conjunction with VA inventory control software help nurses more accurately and efficiently keep count of controlled substances stored on VA hospital wards. The Veterans Health Administration led the initiative with support from contractor Electronic Data Systems Corp.
"We wanted a method of maintaining a perpetual inventory of controlled substances on a ward at any one time " said Jeff Ramirez chief of management and clinical information systems with the VA's Pharmaceutical Benefits Management Strategic Health Group.
The VA's solution was already available off the shelf. The wireless tablet computers made by Epson America Inc. and used at more than 20 VA hospitals eliminate manual counting. Nurses use a bar code reader attached to the tablet computer to scan the drug product and the patient's identification. The tablet computer running terminal emulation software and 2.4 GHz spread-spectrum communications transmits the drug data to the VA's controlled-substance inventory control system.
But even agencies without large field forces have warmed to the benefits of wireless technology. With unique concerns about wiring the National Gallery of Art turned to a wireless solution to help run its business. An off-the-shelf hardware/software combo by Lucent Technologies allowed the gallery a repository for more than 100 000 art objects to connect its cash registers for selling souvenirs books and prints.
WaveLAN PCMCIA-packaged transceivers connect with the gallery's cash registers and WaveLAN software lets the registers communicate with an antenna attached to the gallery's Ethernet for retail systems. The gallery has 21 wireless terminals and typically operates about 15 of them. Information on price changes or new items is sent wirelessly to the registers from a central server. The system also lets registers send sales information at the end of a shift or at the close of the business day.
The practice has allowed the gallery to spread out its retail activities while keeping information centralized. Moreover the solution has provided a simple alternative to wiring along the gallery's historic marble floors said Lee Cathey retail systems manager for the gallery. "I think what's interesting is that [the system] is very reliable and easy to use " Cathey said. "It seems to be very bulletproof."
Things to Come
Wireless applications in the federal government today range from routine to futuristic.
The U.S. military has already started sampling new applications for wireless technology that involve using a wearable computer to aid in servicing helicopters.
The computer designed by Xybernaut Corp. Fairfax Va. and adapted for wireless use lets technicians refer to maintenance manuals as helicopter maintenance is in progress. By remotely accessing electronic manuals the head-mounted device saves technicians from having to climb down from the helicopter check the manual and reclimb the helicopter each time they are uncertain about how to tackle a problem.
The Navy is already trying out the Xybernaut-developed product on the USS Princeton said Scott Brzezinski director of federal sales for the company. Navy technicians are using six of the units connected to an on-ship wireless network which in turn uses satellite communication to access supply databases on land. The wireless connection lets sailors order parts without missing a beat.
In the past broad acceptance of technology for transmitting data wirelessly has been hindered by three factors: coverage security and speed.
Those three gremlins though are being rapidly subdued thanks to strides in technology and the dynamics of business according to Jeff Xouris a spokesman for U.S. Robotics. That company in conjunction with wireless Internet service provider GoAmerica Communications Corp. released last month a wireless Web access service that offers coverage in most of the nation's major metropolitan areas.
The broad coverage is achieved by using the existing RAM Mobile Data network developed jointly by BellSouth and Ram Broadcasting. The growth of such networks is part of the movement creating critical mass in the realm of wireless. "Because of increasing competition and new players in the market - and the increased coverage - cost is becoming more affordable " Xouris said.
And networks such as RAM are helping get a handle on security as well as cost by encoding data on the sending and receiving ends. The wireless industry as a whole is becoming more attuned to keeping data secure as it is transmitted.
"[Wireless data communications] are more secure now because you've got application-level security as well as data encryption " Lucent's Mink said. "The techniques are getting more sophisticated and then the encryption algorithms are getting more sophisticated."
As for speed wireless users are realizing a mixed blessing. Although computers operating wirelessly bring with them the benefits of mobility relatively low speeds - usually less than 10 megabit/sec to communicate across a network - prevent them from taking the place of traditional wired networks which are many times faster.
"People are realizing that speed is less an inherent issue than it is with a landline modem " Xouris said. Wireless users often aren't adamant about speed and they realize that they must trade speed for mobility Xouris added. "What you're trading is accessibility to the information whereas before you couldn't tap into it."
What is likely according to analyst Suss and others is that the use of wireless will spread throughout the government. Officials in more agencies will discover that wireless devices and encryption software offer greater security than in the past. They'll discover that wireless devices are faster and that wireless communications networks are growing to offer greater coverage. And they'll see that the products and pluses of the emerging wireless industry - available through the flexible FWTS contract - can help them do their jobs faster and more efficiently in the face of tight budgets.
"It's coming it's coming " Suss said of federal wireless use. "We'll see more and more."