Bill would require WiFi in federal buildings to spare commercial bandwidth

The Federal Wi-Net Act draws skepticism from some

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced a bill that would require federal buildings to install small wireless base stations to help free up commercial wireless networks.

The Federal Wi-Net Act, introduced Dec. 3, would require the General Services Administration to install or retrofit all publicly accessible federal buildings with wireless or femtocell technology no later than Dec. 31, 2013.. The idea would be that because smart phones with Wi-Fi  capabilities are becoming more ubiquitous in government agencies, the switch would help take the pressure off the spectrum-crunch being dealt with by commercial networks such as At&T and Verizon.

"With over 276 million wireless subscribers across our nation and growing demand for wireless broadband, it is imperative that we take steps to improve wireless communication capacity and this legislation will make measurable progress towards that goal," Snowe said, quoted in Hillicon Valley, The Hill's technology blog. "Given that approximately 60 percent of mobile Internet use and 40 percent of cell phone calls are completed indoors, utilizing technologies such as Wi-Fi and femtocells will dramatically improve coverage."

A spokesman for Warner, Kevin Hall, said the benefit would come by allowing federal employees to access Wi-Fi through “low cost repeater stations.” The idea is to enable federal employees within federal buildings to access Wi-Fi via the base stations rather than  using mobile bandwidth. The bill specifically calls for implementation “in a manner consistent with sound management principles.” That would imply that security protocols would be maintained as set forth by the Federal Communications Commission.

“I wouldn’t say there is any urgency, per se, but there is daily pressure to lower the use of bandwidth and the benefits come through the use of these low-cost repeater stations,” Hall said. “It would help by boosting the existing wireless capacity by taking the pressure of off existing wireless networks.”

The bill would allocate funds from the Federal Building Fund from fiscal year 2010, which are proposed to be $15 million.

"I see a great opportunity to leverage federal buildings in order to improve wireless broadband coverage at a very reasonable cost,” Warner said. “By starting with the nearly 9,000 federal buildings owned or operated by the [GSA], we will be able to provide appreciable improvement in wireless coverage for consumers while also reducing some of the pressure on existing wireless broadband networks."

However, some say moving federal employees off the network through Wi-Fi does not seem like it would have much effect.

“There is not a lot of need to take pressure of off the commercial networks,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “Local workers tend not to dominate local economy. The notion for competing for local bandwidth does not make sense.”

In terms of commercial bandwidth consumption, Suss called the federal workforce “a drop in the bucket.” He did say there are many good reasons for federal buildings to move toward Wi-Fi capabilities such as reducing the wiring infrastructure of older buildings and increasing efficiency, but he does not see reason in the claims made by the senators.

“If the aim is to provide better wireless access than having workers tied to a land line phone, that is another issue [than commercial bandwidth use],” Suss said.

There are security concerns in moving to wireless and different levels of material require different encryption standards.

“Sure, it can decrease security. It depends on the level of security being passed,” Suss said. “There are certain types of communication that cannot be transmitted by any type of wireless.”

Click here to read the full bill.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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