Can you hear me now? In Senate buildings, the answer is yes

The Senate this week activated an in-house cellular network that lets government employees place and receive calls from the bowels of the legislative body’s various buildings. They can even check their BlackBerry devices.

No sooner did the service go live Monday than Senate CIO Greg Hanson began receiving positive feedback.

“I’m getting calls from my customers saying ‘Greg, my cell phone works in the cafeteria of the Dirksen Building,’” Hanson said today at a wireless technology conference in Washington.

The service is not yet available in all Senate buildings — the infrastructure is still being rolled out in the Capitol itself — but it does support almost all commercial cellular services. Hanson said the Senate had reached agreements with all but one cellular carrier. He declined to name the sole holdout but expected the carrier’s service to be live on the Senate network by the end of the month.

The cellular capabilities are part of an extensive hybrid wireless network the Senate is building with technology from MobileAccess Inc. of Vienna, Va.

Not only do the Senate’s wireless access points support cellular communications, they also allow wireless IEEE 802.11b/g access to various networks. Hanson said WiFi access was currently operational in approximately 40 percent of the Senate’s office space, which includes the Dirksen, Hart and Russell Senate office buildings.

When deciding how to build a wireless infrastructure that supports both cellular and WiFi communications, Hanson said the Senate decided it wanted to own the infrastructure and sell the bandwidth back to commercial carriers, who in turn sell their services across the network.

“How do you satisfy everyone by making [the network] carrier agnostic?” Hanson said. Senators and their staff tend to have their favorite cellular services because coverage varies from state to state.

As it rolls out further, WiFi networking, which the Senate secures with hard tokens, virtual private networking and other measures, will require new policies.

“Some offices didn’t want to wait so they went to Best Buy and set up their own wireless networks,” Hanson said.

Hanson said his office is working with the Senate Rules Committee on a policy that would require Senate offices to shut down unauthorized wireless networks. For now, Hanson said, his staff does periodic “war walking” to identify rogue access points.

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