Wireless broadband: Ready for government work?

The government has been slow to allow wireless networking, largely due to some familiar concerns: Security and reliability. That could be about to change.

Stylized radio tower

Although mobility has become a popular buzzword, the government’s use of wireless broadband capabilities has been limited because of concerns about security and reliability.

“Warranted or not, there’s always been a stigma within government circles that somehow wireless connections can’t be secured as well as a physically wired infrastructure,” said Stephen Orr, a distinguished systems engineer in Cisco Systems’ U.S. Public Sector division.

A number of converging developments in technology, policy and culture, however, are finally giving federal IT officials more reasons to believe in the ability of wireless broadband to securely transform their operations.

Specifically, changes taking place in the wireless industry include the transition to the fourth-generation (4G) broadband infrastructure that will make data and video transmission lightning fast and much more secure. When combined with next-generation encryption standards being built into wireless networks, “there’s going to be a lot more flexibility for federal agencies in their options because there is now essentially no difference between the security of wired and wireless networks,” Orr said.

Another factor driving government officials to be more open to using wireless broadband is the growing use of mobile devices, which has federal employees and the general public clamoring to access government resources anytime, anywhere. And all of this comes at a time when the Obama administration is mandating that agencies rely more heavily on cloud computing and telework and pursue operational innovation through a more streamlined, open and citizen-centric approach to technology.

“Wireless mobile networks have become much more intelligent than they ever have been,” said Danny Johnson, director of public sector marketing at Verizon Enterprise Solutions. “And that technology is really an enabler that forms a means for government to streamline operations, to build enhanced productivity into their operations and their business, and then ultimately provide a better user experience for employees and constituents.”

Why it matters

It’s not just security issues that have hampered widespread federal adoption of wireless broadband, said Brett Haan, a principal in Deloitte’s federal telecommunications practice. Although the 3G broadband standard was better than its predecessor, it didn’t give government workers as much capability as their agencies’ wired networks offered, and remote employees could do little beyond reading e-mail and browsing the Web.

By contrast, 4G wireless broadband is completely IP-enabled and offers transmission speeds that are as much as 10 times faster than 3G technology, making the applications and services that could be provided “basically limitless,” Johnson said. The possibilities include live streaming video surveillance, video chat, unified communications, team collaboration, telework, telemedicine, and machine-to-machine computing to enhance fleet management, logistics, and physical and perimeter security.

Next steps

Critical steps for adopting wireless broadband

1. Decide what you want to achieve.
2. Review best practices and lessons learned by other government agencies and the private sector.
3. Rethink and revise relevant policies, including those related to security.
4. Determine which employees need wireless mobile access and whether the efficiency or productivity benefits justify the added costs. 5. Develop a deployment strategy.
6. Choose a network carrier based on the provider’s ability to support your business requirements.
7. Plan and develop mobile applications for employees and the public to use to access your agency’s resources.

Moreover, 4G enables users to essentially stay connected all the time, Orr said. The public will have more opportunities to engage agency services using smart phones and tablet PCs, while government employees will be able to use any mobile device to access applications and agency data, whether they are at home, at a local coffee shop or on the road to a client site.

“Government clearly has a need to do more in terms of providing services to the citizenry with less resources, and for this, I think wireless is a natural complement to the existing wired networks,” Haan said. “Together, they provide synergistic results so that agencies and their constituents are better served. But wireless only adds to that instant capability so you can serve more people at a greater capacity.”

Government agencies are beginning to take advantage of 4G capabilities. For example, some federal defense and state and local public safety agencies are building their own wide-area networks using 4G wireless broadband. The Navy is relying on long-term evolution (LTE), a 4G technology, to enable more reliable and far-reaching communications between ships at sea, while Mississippi officials recently built a statewide LTE network that will allow law enforcement personnel and first responders to talk to one another across jurisdictions and share situational awareness data and video in real time.

Most agencies have no compelling reason not to take advantage of existing wireless carrier networks, Orr said. “It’s really no different than what many agencies have been doing to enable telecommuting, which is to go to a commercial carrier and set down a router at a remote site. It’s just going from wired to wireless broadband.”

And in fact, many agencies have started using wireless networks for key applications — such as telework, unified communications and disaster recovery — and as a low-cost, high-capacity backup to their wired networks.

NASA is in the process of developing a “work anywhere” policy that would rely on cloud computing, commercial broadband and Wi-Fi networks to enhance employee mobility. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to use wireless broadband to provide telemedicine services and medical education to rural and minority communities. And a pilot program undertaken by HHS, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, AT&T and Baylor University is testing the use of video streaming via smart phones to demonstrate diabetes self-management techniques.

The fundamentals

The availability of 4G wireless broadband is the key foundational technology for enabling the secure anytime/anywhere mobility promised in marketing materials, but adopting it is not as simple as contracting with a carrier, said Shawn McCarthy, a research director at IDC Government Insights.

A mobile solution requires additional technologies to ensure that employees can securely access agency resources from their mobile devices without introducing risk, he added.

For example, most agencies currently require teleworkers and other remote employees to log in via a virtual private network, which provides a relatively inexpensive but highly secure tunnel within wired or wireless networks. Using a VPN for a larger mobile workforce could be more complicated.

“The application may not always be possible to launch, depending on where the employee is located,” McCarthy said. “And it might not be compatible with every device that’s out there.”

Johnson said another option is to deploy a virtual desktop infrastructure. With VDI, an employee’s files and applications remain in the agency’s database, whether that’s on site or in the cloud, and employees access their unique “desktop” and work on it remotely using any device they want. A growing number of agencies are using VDI, including the Commerce Department and the Air Force.

The major advantage of VDI, paired with strong multifactor authentication, is that the agency’s resources never leave the protective control of the IT department, and therefore, it is easier for employees to use their own devices for work. However, VDI is expensive and complicated to implement across an enterprise, so agencies generally use it only in targeted scenarios where they can save money or boost productivity.

Table showing 4G tech

Mobile device management is another critical tool for IT departments as more employees are allowed to work remotely. MDM can reduce risks and costs by securing, monitoring and supporting all employee devices. For example, MDM can check for viruses, facilitate software updates and security patches, guard against unintended data leakage, and remotely lock down and wipe clean lost or stolen devices.

The hurdles

How successful agencies are in using commercial wireless broadband networks will ultimately depend on the amount of time and effort they’re willing to put in at the very beginning of the process, Johnson said.

“We are seeing movement in this direction, but it’s to the extent that agencies can effectively address the policy needs, the back-end technology reality and the finance,” he said. “There is a road map that needs to be followed in order to bring this to fruition.”

In the area of policy, agencies must realign their security rules and practices to address the new reliance on wireless mobility, which might or might not include a bring-your-own-device environment.

“In thinking about security, agencies clearly need to think about the back-end device management, device provisioning and obviously the security protocols,” Haan said. “And those may differ between the agencies and between the data itself, whether it’s publicly available data versus confidential health care data versus truly national security data. These are all issues that must be fully thought through.”

Johnson noted that the variety of technological options can complicate matters. “There are a lot of disparate systems out there today, which could include different carriers and different platforms that don’t necessarily interoperate,” he said. “So, for example, if I want to use applications on a smart device and they’re being hosted on a number of different platforms, how do I make sure that all of my architectures actually integrate?”

Finally, in today’s increasingly austere fiscal environment, agencies must determine how much it will cost to deploy, operate and maintain a more mobile environment using commercial wireless carriers and then make a business case for the technology. It is not an insurmountable hurdle, however.

“Even in a tight budget crunch, you can deploy solutions in a certain sub-segment of an enterprise,” Johnson said. “That’s because to the extent that agencies can work out the policy and the technology, they’ll use it.”

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