The new deal: Wi-Fi in every federal building

If passed, the Federal Wi-Net Act would have 2013 as its deadline

Under a bipartisan bill introduced Dec. 3, all publicly accessible federal buildings would get new wireless equipment, whether they need the bandwidth or not.

The Federal Wi-Net Act, sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), would require the General Services Administration to install wireless or femtocell technology in all buildings no later than Dec. 31, 2013, using as much as $15 million from the fiscal 2010 Federal Building Fund.

The idea is to increase the wireless bandwidth around federal buildings while easing the demands on local commercial networks run by AT&T, Verizon and other carriers.

"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 toward that goal," Snowe said in a statement. "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."

But some experts question whether the bill is a solution without a problem.

In terms of commercial bandwidth consumption, the federal workforce is “a drop in the bucket,” Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, told Dan Rowinski at FCW.com. “The notion of competing for local bandwidth does not make sense.”

Suss said 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 that’s not what this bill is about.

“If the aim is to provide better wireless access than having workers tied to a landline phone, that is another issue" than commercial bandwidth use, Suss said.

However, the proposal might have ramifications beyond the scope of the bill, said Ray Willington at HotHardware.com.

A network of wireless base stations could prove useful in rural areas, where the problem is not high demand but a lack of commercial coverage. “This may be a small step at seeing just how feasible rural broadband rollouts would be, which has been a hot topic in D.C.,” Willington writes.

However, he wonders if the project could really cost $15 million. “We think even the Geek Squad could do it for less,” he adds.

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