E-government unplugged

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

one.

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

Internet services.

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

work."

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

future."

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.

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