Agencies test waters of wireless Net access

With the Internet playing a larger and larger role in many operations, federal agencies recently have started investigating alternative methods of communication to provide remote users with dedicated links to the global information infrastructure.

Agencies such as the Marine Corps, the U.S. Information Agency, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — all of which are known for pushing the envelope on remote communications — are leading the way, experimenting with such technologies as cellular telephones, Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) and satellite messaging services to tap into the Internet.

Besides not requiring land-based lines, these links are known for their ease of use, compact size and flexibility, making it easier for users to transport them and set them in out-of-the-way locations.

The missions of agencies such as the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard and USIA "are mobile missions, and mobile technologies fit perfectly," said consultant Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates Inc., Jenkintown, Pa.

In addition, the more widespread use of commercial communications services is having a very positive impact on the government's ability to move information, Suss said. "In some sense, [the Defense Department] has been a first mover in many of these technologies."

For example, the Marine Corps this summer will be outfitting one of its Marine Expeditionary Units with tactical cellular communications devices for use by the MEU's forward-deployed combat operations center. Mobile cell phones relay signals to the nearest cellular antenna, which then relays the signal to a land-based telephone line or microwave dish for delivery to its final destination.

The Marine Corps Systems Command this month announced it is negotiating a contract with Wheat International Inc. for the company's line of TacCell cellular communications devices. The concept of using the devices will undergo a limited technical assessment in June during MARCOT '98, a joint NATO exercise scheduled to take place in Newfoundland.

MEUs, composed of approximately 2,000 Marines, operate at what is known in military parlance as the "pointy end of the spear" and are embarked aboard Navy ships waiting to be deployed. Often, these Marines must operate in countries that lack a usable communications infrastructure and, as a result, must rely on less-flexible field radios.

Wheat's TacCell devices are a lightweight solution that use what is known as AMPS technology, which is a communications standard that allows for the use of National Security Agency-approved analog encryption for secure operation.

The TacCell units can fit in a commercial van or in a military Humvee; they provide up to 256 kilobits/sec connectivity for accessing the Internet or conducting video teleconferencing. Handheld TacCell phones can achieve up to 9.6 kilobits/sec. External connectivity also is provided for use with VSAT terminals, microwave or local public switched telephone services.

The solution was designed to be flexible, said Forrest C. Wheat, president of Wheat International, because expeditionary military forces "need every bit of advantage they can achieve."

TacCell, Wheat said, "provides instantaneous visual, data or audio connectivity" for forward-deployed military forces and disaster-relief personnel.

Maj. Raymond J. Leach, the intelligence officer for the 24th MEU, said cellular technology is very promising but may not be ready for prime time. During one exercise, Leach said, "although I could see one of [the] cell towers from the hill I was on, I'd have to rate reliability less than 50 percent." However, the "light weight and lack of [extra] peripherals make them a preferred piece of gear," he said.

VSAT Pilot

USIA, which also works at far-flung locations, this month concluded an experimental VSAT project called the U.S. Information System 2000 (USIS) pilot project. The six-month experiment provides four overseas posts with dedicated bandwidth for access to the Internet and the ability to use local Washington, D.C., phone service.

VSAT terminals are small antennas that transmit information across long distances using satellites as relay stations. USIA spent $1 million to install one VSAT terminal at USIS missions in Rabat, Morocco; Accra, Ghana; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Warsaw, Poland.

The 2.8-meter dishes provide USIA and embassy personnel with 128 kilobits/sec of dedicated access to the Internet, desktop videoconferencing, diplomatic cables, online databases and agency records. Before using VSAT terminals, the agency was sharing limited bandwidth with the State Department.

Dan Campbell, director of USIA's Office of Technology, is optimistic that VSAT technology will be embraced by the entire diplomatic community. "All indications are that USIS 2000 is going to exceed our expectations. This type of capability not only meets the needs of USIA but of the whole foreign affairs community," he said.

James Bullock, USIA's public affairs officer in Rabat, agrees. "USIS 2000 has given this post an invaluable tool for public diplomacy in the Information Age," he said. "Access to the Internet and high-speed data transfer as fast and reliable as that provided by USIS 2000 is simply unavailable in Morocco."

NOAA and the Coast Guard this month also cast their "nets" far and wide with the help of COMSAT Mobile Communications' COMSAT-C satellite messaging services. The deal provides ocean-going mariners with life-saving connectivity that spans the vast emptiness of the world's oceans.

The cooperative agreement between NOAA and the Coast Guard includes two voluntary safety programs for large ocean-going ships.

The programs, known as the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Reporting system and the Shipboard Environmental Acquisition System (SEAS), help "put all large vessels in the world on the same sheet of music," said Al Labbz, manager of business development for COMSAT. Participating ships report to the Coast Guard the current weather conditions and their search-and-rescue capabilities in case they are called upon to aid a ship in distress.

The ships are outfitted with a COMSAT-C omni-directional antenna, which provides up to 600 bits/sec of store-and-forward capability for filing search and rescue, departure, location and destination reports. Typical delivery times run approximately 30 seconds, Labbz said. The use of COMSAT-C in conjunction with the NOAA and Coast Guard programs "brings more consistency in ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications," he said.

There are currently 12,000 ships participating in the NOAA program, and Labbz expects that number to climb to more than 40,000 in the next year. NOAA and the Coast Guard pay the cost of the satellite transmissions, while participating ships are required to invest in an International Maritime Satellite terminal. The SEAS software is free.

Bill Woodward, chief of the Observing Networks Branch at NOAA, said the agreement "improves the efficiency of sending messages and makes it substantially less expensive."

Although projects such as the Marine Corps' cellular phones and USIA's USIS 2000 are still in the experimental phase, they hold great promise for extending the reach of the U.S. information infrastructure to those who need it most. Alex Almasov, the USIA public affairs officer in Buenos Aires, said, "It is now up to all of us to ensure that [USIS 2000] does not stay in the experimental phase but is instituted as a regular communications system and expanded to all posts."

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