Wireless firms jump on Senate Wi-Fi

Commercial cellular carriers activated service this week for the U.S. Senate across a secure wireless network that has been months in planning.

When the Senate's hybrid wireless infrastructure is completed, the Capitol building, all three Senate office buildings and several outlying facilities will support cell phone, 802.11b/g wireless and BlackBerry networks, said J. Greg Hanson, chief information officer and assistant sergeant-at-arms for the U.S. Senate.

He spoke today at the Wireless/RFID Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the E-Gov Institute. "We had all cellular carriers live as of Monday, except one," he said. "We expect that one to be live by the end of this month."

Hanson added that technicians are one-third of the way through the plan for installing access points for 801.11b/g wireless access to Senate office networks. The unclassified wireless infrastructure will be secured with firewalls, access point authentication, encryption and other security measures, he said.

Hanson, who described his Senate job title as "CIO-plus" — how many other CIOs are called on to escort the president and wife at various public functions? — spoke about the difficulties and pleasures of being the CIO of a uniquely decentralized organization. His staff of 250 full-time employees, supplemented by about the same number of contractors, provides information technology services for 100 senators and 24 committees.

"They're all over the map with expectations," Hanson said, adding that gathering consistent and realistic IT requirements for such an organization is challenging. "How do you build an enterprise anything in this environment?" he asked.

To illustrate the challenge, Hanson said the Senate is in the midst of creating a new Microsoft Exchange messaging infrastructure based on Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory. To satisfy the varied privacy and data integrity concerns of senators, Hanson and his staff have created three distinct messaging architectures, "all to satisfy the need and desire to protect data," he said.

That decision will mean more work for the CIO's office, which will have to maintain three distinct server configurations, Hanson said. But it will give senators and their staffers the option of choosing to use a centrally managed enterprise messaging system, a locally managed version or a hybrid of the two, he said.

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