Lawmakers, staffers seek perfect PDA

The House of Representatives is seeking the next generation of wireless personal digital assistants that would combine wireless phones, pagers and e-mail. The problem, it seems, is that lawmakers may have to wait for vendors to develop their dream machine.

Since Sept. 11, the House has ordered 1,900 BlackBerry handheld devices, made by Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), to help members communicate with one another and their staffs. But many members carry equipment besides the BlackBerry on a "flak belt," including two wireless phones (one for official business and one for campaigning), a pager and a Palm Inc. handheld.

"We're still waiting for the Holy Grail of devices," said Reynold Schweickhardt, director of technology for the House Administration Committee.

In the meantime, committee members are working with Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. to come up with a solution. They also have issued a request for information about off-the-shelf products that could provide secure wireless access to the House intranet, and they are evaluating various handheld devices already on the market.

But conducting congressional business on Capitol Hill or in the home district without high-tech handheld devices is a growing problem, Schweickhardt said.

Lawmakers want a device they can use in between meetings as well as in their home offices. But one-third of the ZIP codes in the United States currently have no access to BlackBerry coverage, according to Schweickhardt. However, RIM is working to expand BlackBerry coverage nationwide.

"We have members who take their BlackBerries home and go through withdrawal," Schweickhardt said. "We would like a member to use it when they go home."

Vendors say it is possible to connect every member of Congress with wireless technology. "The bottom line is, wireless connectivity is doable," said Jay Vollmer, a major account manager with Cisco Systems federal operations. "It is available, stable, standard out there today."

And encrypted wireless technology is available that can turn an e-mail into a voice message or vice versa. "If the [House] speaker wanted to broadcast to every member, we know how to do that securely," said Bob Cook, chief executive officer of Sigaba Corp., which provides secure Internet communications.

"We are working to help them evaluate mobile technologies," said Keith Hodson, a spokesman for Microsoft, which is coming out with a "smart phone" that will be able to perform some of the actions that lawmakers seek.

RIM also is working with the House to fulfill the requirements.

"We have a very compelling architecture for providing additional application requirements as they evolve over time," said Mark Guibert, RIM's vice president of brand management.

" The thing to take note of is that wireless solutions are not just about the device and not just about the network, but also about the back-end server software," Guibert said. "When you start thinking about wireless applications, and you start talking about PDAs, the audience has to update its thinking about what a PDA is."

The House Administration Committee is trying to come up with an architecture they can put in place by the end of 2003 or early 2004. And it won't be a moment too soon.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers experienced firsthand being denied access to their offices when a round of anthrax-tainted mail forced some congressional office buildings to close for months, in some cases. And even today, congressional offices are still on alert for tainted mail (see box, Page 22).

"There is a need for this type of technology," said Kathy Goldschmidt, director of technology services for the Congressional Management Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "People are thinking more about continuity of operations. If there is another disaster, having access to office files, Web sites, e-mail and other communications methods will be very important."

Even the management of their daily work cycle is a problem without technology, Goldschmidt said. Members are rarely in their own offices, and it is sometimes hard to track them down as they race from hearing to hearing and to the House floor for votes.

"Here in Washington, staff can be much more productive if they are able to be mobile," she said. "Even on the House campus, staff can keep in touch with members no matter where they are."

Congress may be seeking technology already used by the Defense Department to provide highly secure communications among various types of portable devices in a tactical environment.

"The technology is certainly feasible," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. "The challenge is to find a true commercial off-the-shelf version of the technology. If you get something that is too government-specific, it becomes obsolete."

Suss said vendors are working to improve technology in consideration of the glaring problems that first responders faced Sept. 11 when firefighters and police in New York City and the Washington, D.C., area could not communicate with one another. Rescue workers everywhere found that wireless phones jammed and landlines didn't work.

"The demand isn't going to go away — the demand is going to increase," Suss said. "If the government can leverage forces of the commercial marketplace, they can influence the folks who are putting out the next generation of PDAs to include the capacity of more robust communications."

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Wiring congress

The wireless handheld device is just one high-tech solution under consideration by lawmakers. Here are other programs the House Administration Committee is developing:

Mail scanning — The committee is developing a pilot project to scan mail into computers and electronically deliver it to members. Independent contractors would open the mail. About 50 House members and two committees will participate.

Web content management — The committee is seeking ways to manage the content of Web sites using software that would not require every office to dedicate one employee to the job. A site could be managed through a central location or using content management tools that require less technical training.

Alternate computing system — The committee is studying to develop an infrastructure capable of operating without the systems on Capitol Hill.

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