Here’s how to sort through the options for broadband wireless services
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates a network of 187 coastal water-level sensing stations nationwide to compile tide and currents tables. Those tables help keep private boats and commercial ships from running aground.
But because of their remote locations, not every station can link to headquarters via telephone lines. In such cases, NOAA relies on high-speed wireless data services from a variety of providers to send water-level readings to a central collection center every six minutes. NOAA uses multiple carriers, including Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless, for those data services because ubiquitous wireless coverage is not yet a reality.
Warren Krug, a NOAA electronics technician, said he is patient with vendors that continue efforts to plug gaps in their geographical coverage areas. He is less forgiving of providers who fail to provide consistent customer service. NOAA officials often know about network problems long before the carriers inform them.
“We know when a server goes down because we see dropped data or poor data” throughput, Krug said. “We’d like the carriers [to] be a little more proactive with maybe [sending] an e-mail saying there’s a problem.”
Welcome to the still-maturing world of broadband wireless data services. Consultants, systems integrators and federal officials who rely on the increasingly popular offerings say those services are technologically impressive but at times frustratingly immature.
On the plus side, the fastest of today’s services, known as 3G — for third generation — can help mobile workers to be almost as productive as when they’re connected via landline broadband services, such as DSL or cable modems. And although some service disruptions occur, such as those experienced by NOAA, the major carriers generally get high marks for reliability. Because 3G transmissions travel via private cellular networks, they’re also more secure than public Wi-Fi wireless data networks.
Expansion problems with 3G remain, however. Because carriers are still extending their geographical coverage, service from a single provider might not be available for an agency’s multiple field locations. Other complaints from federal users focus on pricing plans tailored to music-streaming consumers rather than government agencies. Lapses in customer support during 3G installations and when network problems occur are additional causes for complaints.
When choosing among 3G platforms, users must endure an onslaught of claims and counterclaims from service providers about which is best. One 3G platform is the more established Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO), an updated Code Division Multiple Access radio standard that Sprint and Verizon Wireless use. It has theoretical top speeds of about 2.5 megabits/sec. The other platform is High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) from Global System for Mobile Communications network providers such as Cingular. It has theoretical speeds as fast as 3 megabits/sec.
How should government agencies cope with competing standards? Ignore the debate, said Bill Hughes, a principal analyst at digital communications consultant In-Stat.
“There are people who have near religious fervor about one standard or the other,” Hughes said. “But as far as the end user is concerned, both are fast and both have similar latency [levels]. Purists can tell the difference, but to the end user they are relatively insignificant.”
Instead, five other factors are more important for agencies to consider when they begin shopping for 3G service.
1. Location is everything
Geographical coverage continues to be a decisive factor for agencies when they pick a provider, Hughes said. But the choices are not always clear. “There never has been and there never will be a completely ubiquitous wireless solution,” he said.
Patchwork coverage can be a problem, particularly for large agencies with field offices nationwide. Maps available at carriers’ Web sites show the coverage of broadband networks, but they are not always accurate.
To gauge quality-of-service levels, agencies should run test projects before signing a long-term contract, said Mark Adams, chief architect of networks at Northrop Grumman Information Technology. “Pilot [projects] allow you to put 10 fire trucks and five police cars in one area and see if the service is going to support the kind of applications you want to run,” Adams said.
Another approach is to stitch together services from multiple carriers into a single data network using connectivity software that establishes multicarrier connections, he said.
If two carriers use the same 3G technology, the switch is transparent to the user. But users will have to swap 3G modems in their device if the different carriers’ 3G services are incompatible.
For consistency’s sake, agencies can program the software that individual devices such as handsets and 3G-equipped PCs use so that their security credentials apply for each network standard, he added.
2. Speeds may vary
Like voice quality on cellular phone calls, 3G data speeds can vary depending on the mobile user’s location. So HSDPA download speeds might be 400 kilobits/sec to 700 kilobits/sec, with uplink rates about half those levels. Speeds can drop further if coverage gaps or network problems interrupt transmissions from the 3G network. They might fall as low as previous-generation standards, such as 1xRTT on EV-DO or HSDPA’s Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution, which runs at speeds as slow as 60 kilobits/sec to 70 kilobits/sec.
Such variances might be an annoying inconvenience or a deal breaker, depending on whether the mobile application sends basic text messages or large multimedia files. “One of the frustrations about [3G] is that even though it’s pretty good for routine e-mail, if you are sending or receiving large attachments, it can be very slow,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “And junk e-mail or messages with large attachments that aren’t a high priority will slow you down when you are downloading e-mail.”
3. Public vs. private networks
Agencies shouldn’t automatically opt for consumer services that use public wireless networks but may not offer the performance necessary for critical uses, such as public safety or homeland security. “When vendors try to sell their service to the government, the government many times doesn’t realize one size doesn’t fit all,” Adams said.
Instead, some agencies might need to create private 3G wireless data networks across a campus or region, similar to private wired wide-area networks used governmentwide. Agencies should also consider marrying 3G with other wireless technologies, such as secure Wi-Fi hot spots using 4.9 GHz spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission recently allocated for public safety uses. The dedicated channel separates traffic from unlicensed and high-traffic Wi-Fi spectrum used by the general public. Agencies can send local traffic to those dedicated Wi-Fi hot spots and keep 3G channels open for critical data, Adams said.
4. Security concerns
Agencies need to consider the costs of upgrading their telecommunications infrastructure when they’re shopping for 3G services. They should include costs for authenticating people who try to use broadband networks to access agency applications.
“Back-end security is key,” said Jim Russo, telecom manager at the Office of Service Development and Delivery in the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.
Adams added that for sensitive but unclassified information, software encryption programs provide acceptable security. Agencies communicating classified information should opt for stronger hardware encryption devices, he said.
5. Bottom-line issues
Service-contract pricing for 3G remains an obstacle for government agencies. On the surface, 3G plans appear economical. Some plans charge $50 to $60 a month per user, but the details of those plans can yield financial surprises, Russo said.
“You may buy a plan at $55.99 for 500 minutes for 100 users,” Russo said. “But half of those people use only 200 minutes a month, and they still get charged $55.99. So you are paying 30 cents a minute. At the same time, some power users are using 1,000 minutes a month, and they’re getting charged overage charges. So their effective cost per minute may be even higher. Even though you are getting what looks like a good rate on the service [for individuals], you may be paying much higher than that as an agency.”
Many federal managers say they would prefer agencywide or departmentwide pricing with usage thresholds. The agency would pay a set per-minute charge for as much as, say, 1,000 minutes and a higher rate over that amount, Russo said.
“The government is struggling with how to buy purely commercial services geared for people downloading [cellular phone] ring tones and playing games rather than using them for the business of government, and that’s a big challenge,” Russo said. Efforts are under way to use the government’s strategic sourcing initiative to address those concerns, he added.
In the meantime, agencies can look for economies of scale for 3G hardware and services through three main GSA programs. First, the GSA schedules include 3G providers. Schedule contracts are best for commodity items such as 3G modems and handsets, which agencies can purchase via GSA Advantage, the agency’s electronic buying tool, Russo said.
Second, governmentwide acquisitions contracts provide another way to obtain systems integration services.
A third choice is telecom programs, such as FTS 2001, which offers a comprehensive package of 3G services, equipment and integration work. Networx, which will replace the expiring FTS 2001 contract next year, will offer 3G wireless products and services.