Productivity Spurs Smartphone and PDA Use in Federal Agencies

SPECIAL REPORT: Smartphones & PDAs


By Barbara DePompa, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

A Little History

While traditional wireline telecommunications technologies have seemingly always been managed under the jurisdiction of the GSA’s FTS contracts and now Networx, cell phone use grew out of smaller acquisition decisions, mostly made by local offices in many ‘uncoordinated ways,’ according to seasoned telecommunications industry-watcher Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, Inc., Jenkintown, Pa.

In many ways, the adoption of cell phones and PDAs by federal sector organizations has followed a path similar to other low-cost technologies, with agencies spending money on such devices at year’s end, using any funds still available. “Often they received bad deals on wireless services, with no discounts at the local wireless technology retailer,” he explained.

Without an aggregated purchasing vehicle to gain discounts, track or manage these devices, it was difficult to measure the effectiveness of their use in government environments, or manage programs and or provide necessary reports to comply with federal regulations, Suss added.

Now that wireless services have been incorporated into the Networx contract, federal agencies are starting to gain not only a better deal on better wireless services, but also a single, faster 800 phone number for billing or technical problems, as well as the ability to better manage and inventory these devices as physical assets.

Smartphones and PDAs are gaining traction among a range of federal audiences as agencies and departments seek to enable greater mobility, to boost responsiveness for COOP, improve information-sharing, enhance productivity and track as well as manage valuable assets.

 

Wireless mobility is changing almost everything related to the way people work. Smartphones and PDAs are being used not only for voice calls, text messages and managing personal information, but also for tasks typically completed on a computer, including sending and receiving e-mail, browsing the web, storing and modifying documents, delivering presentations and remotely accessing data.

 

The relatively recent shift in favor toward smartphones and PDAs owes at least some of its strength to the new presidential administration. Not long ago, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, Inc., Jenkintown, Pa., such devices were only available for high-ranking federal officials who had to go way out of their way to justify the use of these devices. “Now, the perception is that smartphones and PDAs are productivity tools and a good investment,” he explained.

 

Increasingly, law enforcement, emergency management and a range of other government functions are being upgraded with wireless capabilities to increase productivity, accuracy and effectiveness. Even more exciting are the applications that promise to expand smartphone use and help agencies better serve their constituents. Handheld devices today feature many of the functions of a PC, including e-mail, web browsing, document viewing, music and video, along with mobile communication features such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, multiple forms of cellular service and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. According to market research giant, IDC, 157 million smartphones were sold worldwide last year, up 26.9 percent from 2007. And IDC further expects smartphone shipments to nearly double to 301 million by 2012.

 

 

As developers increasingly team with network providers and device manufacturers to design software tools, public sector organizations are expected to gain an ever-expanding array of capabilities to justify their investments in wireless technologies. “We know that the federal government is a mobile workforce, with 91% of federal employees having worked away from the headquarters office at one point or another,” Rick Zambrano, executive director, AT&T Government Solutions.

 

Telework, for example, has been a buzzword that’s been in the federal government for many years, “but from a wireless perspective it’s becoming more of a reality,” he continued.

 

For instance, AT&T has sold more than 5,500 BlackBerry devices to the U.S. Postal Service, which is using the handheld devices for enterprise applications that enable more efficient operations, including e-mail and even fleet management, Zambrano explained.

 

Field force automation is also considered a critical issue for federal agencies that are trying to do more with less, and for everything from inspections to census-taking to audits, smartphones and PDAs are being picked up by federal field services officers as a strong productivity aid. “The ability to fill out forms, while in the field, and update the database back at the home office in real time is enabling greater efficiency, productivity and the ability to make faster, better decisions,” Zambrano said.

 

According to Suss, for national security and emergency preparedness, the handheld devices would be of enormous benefit to federal first responders in the aftermath of hurricanes or even a terrorist attack. The caveat, however, is that the more dependent an agency becomes on this technology, the more vulnerable it becomes in a disaster scenario. This is why Suss sees a bright future for satellite based broadband services to provide that critical second channel for communications in the aftermath of any emergency that might impact mobile wireless networks, especially for first responders.

 

Ultimately, these devices address key challenges when it comes to enhancing the productivity of agency personnel, as well as recruiting and retaining top talent. In Zambrano’s opinion, wireless technology is a hot button for young, talented workers. But most importantly, federal organizations must figure out how to effectively manage these devices. “We use the term ‘enterprise management.’ Federal agencies must understand and involve the carriers early in the process of acquisition, to help these organizations support wireless technologies using a lifecycle management model,” he explained.

 

Undoubtedly, 2008 saw an upswing in the acceptance of new applications for wireless handheld devices. The USPS, for example, has evolved its use of wireless handheld devices from running a home-grown application and a single help desk solution to now using the devices to track vehicles using AT&T’s 3G network. “We call this mobile resource management, and USPS is gaining enormous enonomies of scale for its tens of thousands of postal vehicles using PDAs to track locations and even fuel usage, to help lower its carbon footprint,” Zambrano explained.

 

By embracing new applications on the smartphones and PDAs they’ve already invested in, federal agencies can create enormous efficiencies by deploying advanced, formerly traditional desktop computer applications. There are a growing number of examples cropping up on the civilian side, as these agencies build on their existing infrastructures and centralize the administration and management of handheld devices, either agency or department-wide.

 

The same doesn’t hold true for the defense side of government, which is still largely decentralized in its approach to adopting wireless or handheld device technologies.  The Department of Defense lags a bit, in Zambrano’s opinion, due to more extensive security concerns, federal security compliance requirements and its own highly secured VPNs and stringent certification processes. “The adoption of wireless handheld devices is slower, as the military branches are still siloed. While the DoD has many devoted RIM BlackBerry users, it has taken a long time to gain their trust in the security features available,” he explained.

 

While Zambrano admits part of the problem lies with industry suppliers, who haven’t always done enough to gain the trust of officials in these classified environments, “we’re working hard to get the word out now that federal defense organizations really don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to security,” he explained.

 

Within defense organizations, Suss sees the DoD’s adoption of  Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device (SME-PED) technology as a step forward in the development of secure wireless devices for classified communications in rugged environments.