It's a wireless world

Like it or not, smart phones and handheld messaging devices are all over government. Here’s how to make sure this invasion of mobile devices doesn’t drain your organization’s budget or threaten its security.

A call came on Vivek Kundra’s smart phone just after midnight one day last year informing him that a critical piece of the information technology infrastructure in the nation’s capital city had failed.

Kundra, the District of Columbia’s chief technology officer, used a wireless cellular device — a BlackBerry 8100 Pearl — to set up a communications bridge that connected the smart phones and personal digital assistants of senior managers scattered throughout the city, Maryland and Virginia.

In less than 10 minutes, the managers could exchange e-mail messages, read network operations center alerts and scan status reports on a special Web site as they made their way to the city’s data center.

“I was able to focus on command and control and assemble my top team to solve the problem on my Pearl,” Kundra said. “Everyone was looking at the same information and communicating in real time.”

The managers fixed the outage within an hour, a task that could have taken five times longer without immediate communications and access to relevant data, Kundra said. The return on investment from that single day paid for the BlackBerry services, he added.

Such is the perceived value of the latest generation of wireless mobile devices. In one category are smart phones — cell phones with large screens for e-mail, Web and multimedia capabilities. In another category are PDAs, slightly beefier devices designed primarily for data communications. They have features such as enterprise server connectivity and keyboards and now offer voice capabilities.

PDAs that only handled data messaging were specialized tools for emergency responders and delivery workers. Now smart phones and voice-enabled PDAs are standard issue for public-sector executives, mobile workers or anyone else who might be needed when a problem arises. 

Kundra uses Washington’s special homeland security requirements to justify a liberal allocation of mobile devices.

“Given Washington’s position as a target, it’s critical for me to be able to get hold of anyone who is involved in emergency services,” he said.

Kundra issues wireless devices to employees whose responsibilities have anything to do with 911 services, the telecommunications infrastructure or servers.

But as mobile voice and data communications become ubiquitous, agencies need to take extra steps to effectively manage the devices and their associated services. Agency managers say costly service plans, maintenance overhead and new security vulnerabilities can quickly offset wireless benefits.

Mobile devices also create new work/life issues, said John McManus, the Commerce Department’s deputy chief information officer and CTO, who calls his PDA “the little demon device.”

McManus programs his PDA to turn itself off in the evening and on in the morning. In a nighttime emergency, his staff knows to reach him by using a traditional wireline phone rather than sending an e-mail message or a Short Message Service alert.

“Mobile devices have added a tremendous amount of value in allowing us to work in situations that we couldn’t have in the past,” McManus said. “But it’s really up to the individual to balance that work/life relationship between you and the device.”

Spending spike
Since 2005, when spending for wireless devices first surpassed wireline revenues, smart phones and PDAs have steadily become fixtures at public agencies and commercial businesses. The wireless market — including services, handsets and communications infrastructure — now stands at about $200 billion in the United States, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association.

The market has been growing an average of 40 percent annually in recent years, said Stephen Bruce, head of the U.S. mobility practice at BT Americas, which provides wireless management services for large organizations.

The greatest penetration of mobile wireless devices in the public sector is at large, geographically dispersed agencies such as the Defense and Interior departments and NASA, said Michael King, a research director at Gartner. He estimated that a quarter of the mobile workers at those agencies carry wireless voice and data devices.

In one recent study, the General Services Administration found that a representative sample of 15 federal agencies spent about $123 million for wireless hardware and services in 2006 to support 219,000 wireless accounts. Among the top spenders were the Navy, at about $46 million, and the Agriculture and Justice departments, at $17 million and $13.6 million, respectively.

Buying considerations
Mobile wireless devices are extremely popular, despite the still-maturing technology on which they rely. Agency policies for acquiring and managing mobile wireless devices and services are also evolving.

Some IT organizations support multiple wireless platforms, including Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, Microsoft Windows Mobile, Symbian from Symbian Software, and Palm’s operating system and hardware.

Familiarity with more than one vendor means agencies can better capitalize on market-changing advancements rather than settling for a single vendor’s development timetable. Multiple choices also help IT managers match devices to employee preferences.

“From a DNA perspective, we’re all different, so I didn’t want to standardize across the board,” Kundra said. His group supports both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices.

However, as he and other technology directors pointed out, although some diversity is good, agencies must limit platform and device choices to a manageable number.

“Drivers for the Postal Service may need one type of device, while the executives need another model,” King said. “But you are looking at only two devices as opposed to dozens, which really does drive management costs up significantly.”

Operation and maintenance costs vary depending on device and service combinations. But rough estimates put total-cost-of-ownership rates at $1,900 to $2,400 a year for smart phones and voice-enabled PDAs versus $1,200 for voice-only cell phones, King said.

Agencies that limit wireless configurations also benefit from volume-buying strategies. They can often negotiate lower prices for services when they can enroll more employees in a common service plan.  

“The more people that you can bring onto a single carrier, the better we are able to do in terms of negotiating those rates with that carrier,” Bruce said.

For example, officials in Lake Forest, Ill., received concessions from RIM for its BlackBerry users by negotiating a citywide plan.

“As part of the city’s overall deal, [we received] significant price breaks on the equipment,” said Joe Gabanski, the town’s network administrator. The BlackBerry devices cost $99 each — a discount of 50 percent or more compared with retail prices — and the city received a 10 percent discount on service plans, he said.

Growing management overhead for wireless voice and data devices is causing many organizations to consider outsourcing alternatives. Companies in the outsourcing business say they can evaluate agency usage patterns to determine the best coverage areas and rate plans, configure new devices and respond to help-desk calls.

Management contractors also attempt to make sure “there’s a solid, enforceable policy that agencies can put some governance around,” Bruce said.

About 20 percent of public-sector and commercial organizations now use third parties to manage their wireless programs, about double the number 18 months ago, King said. IBM, BT and RIM are among those offering the services.

Depending on support levels — which can range from basic phone support to a dedicated, on-site representative — King said monthly third-party maintenance and management services cost $7 to $35 per device.

McManus said NASA, his previous employer, included cell phone and PDA management in the desktop management contract it signed with Lockheed Martin a decade ago.

After some bumps in the early days of the contract, NASA eventually benefited from volume discounts and support resources that gave field offices the same service levels that headquarters enjoyed.

“If I dropped my BlackBerry when I was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, [Lockheed Martin] could replace it for me there,” McManus said. “I didn’t have to wait until I got back to Washington.”

McManus said costs for service contracts dropped an average of 10 percent to 15 percent as NASA divisions gradually replaced their individual contracts with a centralized plan. He is now investigating how Commerce might benefit from a similar program.

“I’m trying to leverage the lessons we learned at NASA to unify contracts and get better volume discounts and servicing,” he said.

New help
Agencies looking for centralized management could get help later this year from GSA’s Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative (FSSI). By the end of the fiscal year, GSA expects to have a handful of contractors committed to its telecom expense management (TEM) program. It will provide wireless management services such as inventory assessment, service-plan evaluation and consolidation, maintenance and support, and security-policy enforcement.

The support offering will complement the hardware and services acquisitions managed by GSA’s Networx program, said Paulette Gemmer, the agency’s team leader for the wireless component of FSSI. GSA set a June deadline for responses to its request for proposals for the $93 million TEM program.

Through its research, GSA found that agencies that used centralized service plans reduced their service and support costs 25 percent to 40 percent, Gemmer said. Additional benefits come from eliminating the staff time now devoted to service duties.

“Agencies missions don’t necessarily involve using their staff to manage wireless assets,” Gemmer said. TEM will enable an agency to use its resources appropriately, including instructing contractors to make sure security policies get implemented.

“This will help them stand up to an [inspector general] audit of their wireless services,” she said.

Bob Suda, associate CIO for integration and operations at USDA, said he is looking forward to the availability of governmentwide management services for mobile wireless devices.

“I’m hoping there will be a major reduction in the cost of managing these particular devices,” Suda said.

Top on his management list is having one vendor that can create an accurate inventory of wireless hardware, keep an accurate record of usage minutes across the department and negotiate better service rates.

“It will be a paradigm shift because people are buying things one at a time now,” Suda said. “Costs should go down because of economies of scale.”

But outsourcing won’t be problem-free. King said drawbacks include the lack of direct oversight managers have of how employees are using wireless devices and longer lead times when agencies try to introduce new wireless applications. Problems also can arise when service problems occur, such as the network outage in April that severed millions of BlackBerry users from their e-mail accounts.

In that situation, King said, the likelihood that managers will have a good idea right away of what’s going on is less than it would be if they were in direct control of their mobile wireless infrastructure.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at [email protected].



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