Wireless sets operations free

From state legislatures to ships at sea, new technologies address security and increase productivity

Wireless at ground level

Before building a house addition, installing a fence or even putting up a mailbox post, homeowners in every state must call a specific agency to get underground utility lines marked before a shovel is ever driven into earth.

The Virginia Utility Protection Service (VUPS), which operates the Miss Utility call center, provides that for the state's homeowners and businesses, said Rick Pevarski, the service's chief executive officer.

The system used for deciding which utilities need to be called is fairly imprecise and antiquated. A new wireless/Global Positioning System service promises to be more accurate and efficient.

With its old ticketing process, if a homeowner wanted to install a mailbox post, he or she would call Miss Utility and provide the address where the work would take place. The service looks up the address and creates a grid area around the house showing what utilities exist in that area.

"We would then send a notification to those utilities telling them your name, what your planned excavation is and a bunch of other information," Pevarski said. "The utilities themselves, or a hired contractor, then goes out and puts paint on the ground to locate their facilities, so you know where you can dig."

A yellow line in the grass means a gas line runs below, for example.

One of the inherent problems with the system is it leads to overnotification, where utilities are forced to draw lines all over a yard even if just a 2-foot by 2-foot hole is planned. It also means some utilities go out and paint lines even if their services are nowhere near the excavation site.

"And so you really kind of lose your efficiencies in the process," Pevarski said.
To improve the situation, the VUPS is testing a system that uses GPS-enabled phones to mark exactly where the digging is planned. That information is matched with a database that determines which utilities need to go to the site and make marks. It also directs the marker to work in a precise place rather than an entire yard.

Another way to use the system is with GPS-enabled handheld devices that use Bluetooth to connect to a cell phone. Contractors would be good candidates for the handheld systems because the entire ticket could be GPS-marked and submitted from the handheld in the field.

Although the system is still in a pilot phase, Pevarski is encouraged by the results.

"What we've found is the total area of notification is about one-tenth that of a normal ticket using this wireless process," he said. "So it is defining that area much more accurately."

The new system has also eliminated 40 percent to 60 percent of all trouble tickets sent to the VUPS, helping optimize its workflow.

? Doug Beizer

In the final days of the legislative session at Oklahoma's state capitol, things tend to get chaotic and messy.

Bills can run more than 100 pages long, with language added, removed and rewritten. For State Rep. Randy Terrill, the stacks of papers on his desk often measured half his height. That wouldn't have been so bad if not for the equally tall stacks of bills and backup materials taking up floor space in his office.

In an effort to tame the chaos, the state undertook a project to create a wireless network in the capitol that enables members and their staffs to eschew paper in favor of electronic versions of the lawmaking documents.

The state issued lawmakers laptop PCs with 17-inch screens. Using the laptops, they can access daily agendas, bills and supporting materials anywhere they go. Members can view bills, compare versions of bills, and search the proposed laws.

"Not only has that whole process increased the efficiency and productivity of individual members in the House, it's also saved taxpayers literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing and distribution costs," Terrill said.

"We still have some members who are addicted to the paper, and the beauty of this system is we have high-speed printers in the hallways where individual members and their assistants can print those bills on demand," he said.

Although security concerns made government agencies wary of wireless solutions in the past, the benefits of wireless systems are outweighing those fears. Technology companies and analysts expect to see continued growth in wireless during the next decade.

Hardware and software for building secure networks are expected to proliferate, along with applications for those networks and devices to access them.

In Terrill's case, the application built for the capitol's wireless system means he can be productive in the evening with a friend in the state Senate over coffee at a nearby IHOP.

"We can go over legislation together without stacks of paper," he said.

Infrastructure demands

Because wireless speeds are adequate for most networking needs, agencies often turn to the technology when doing construction work in their buildings. It can be easier to go wireless rather than pulling fiber to every corner of a building.

But many efforts go beyond a single building. Recognizing the benefits of delivering applications and services wirelessly to wherever workers are, officials at federal agencies are examining their overall infrastructures.

"More and more, the federal government is starting to look like a service provider in terms of offering up managed services," said Scott Sobers, program director of IBM Corp.'s Tivoli Netcool Solutions. "Since some of these very large projects are really huge transformations, agencies are starting to look like a traditional telecommunications company in the way they offer services."

Agencies want to use existing telecom networks and cellular towers to run their network services. But they want to be able to customize the way those services operate.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, is starting to adopt a managed-service approach in providing services to agencies, Sobers said.

"Everything is going to a wireless environment, and more and more, agencies are going to be taking their applications and their services and delivering them wirelessly to cell phones, laptops and handhelds," Sobers said. "And they're looking at doing that across not just traditional cellular networks, but over radio networks and satellite."

For example, emergency services, data and e-mail will run across the networks.
Security becomes a priority anytime a wireless local-area network is installed, especially when government customers are involved. Agencies want to make sure they have good wireless intrusion-detection systems and good auditing controls.

Integrators need to consider wireless technology even on jobs where government customers do not want wireless, said Wade Williamson, director of product management at AirMagnet Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif., provider of wireless LAN planning, management and troubleshooting solutions.

"We'll monitor the airwaves and make sure that there's no wireless LAN and there are no unknown wireless devices," Williamson said. "There's also a kind of spectrum analysis component we do which looks at wireless from a higher level than just Wi-Fi. There are other types of wireless devices out there like Bluetooth that are not approved of in certain situations, and we need to know about them."
Sometimes rogue wireless networks appear unintentionally. Other times, the networks are intentional but not malicious.

Wi-Fi is a common technology, and people are comfortable with access points and probably have them at home. Sometimes employees or contractors will bring a wireless access point to a site because they want to be mobile in a building and they know how to use the wireless technology.

"Obviously the big problem there is if it is not secure to the proper level, that access point is accessible to pretty much anyone within radio frequency listening range," Williamson said. "If that access point happens to be plugged into the wired network, then you have yourself a very dangerous potential breach because you have a wireless connection that could be reaching outside the building, and it is connected to your physical wire."

Intentional attacks are a concern, too. If somebody is trying to hack a network or compromise a wireless device, it can be done by pushing a user off a wireless connection and then trying to spoof that identity back into the network.
That can be difficult for an access point to detect. So it is another area where monitoring is required.

One impending challenge systems integrators will face is the availability of a new, faster Wi-Fi standard, called 802.11n.

"What that is going to do is really raise the bar considerably in terms of what wireless LANs are capable of doing," Williamson said. "You're going to be going from top speeds of 54 megabits up to above 500 megabits in some cases."
That increase will fundamentally change what WLANs can do. Managing and securing networks on the new standard will require new attention and expertise.

Emerging devices

The availability of new, lightweight devices that have power and functionality similar to traditional computers is also driving adoption.

Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp., for example, recently announced a palm-size and ultraportable version of its Lifebook convertible notebooks.

Weighing 1.56 pounds with a 5.6-inch display and a slim QWERTY keyboard, the LifeBook U810 notebook works like a standard laptop or handheld tablet PC. It can run standard laptop applications and dock with an external display and keyboard to deliver a desktop PC experience.

Government customers have increasing needs for untethered communications when it comes to issues such as airport security, disaster recovery, border security and military operations, said Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing at Fujitsu.

The way those devices connect to networks will depend on each particular circumstance. Fujitsu offers 802.11 on all its systems and will add cellular and WiMax in 2008.

Integrators should build stout networks for all wireless devices, Moore said.
"No signal, weak signals and dropped signals are not tolerated in these critical deployments," he said.

Emergency response and military agencies are also interested in hardware that makes it possible to set up a wireless network in rough conditions.

Augmentix Corp. has an agreement with Dell Inc. to take Dell servers and parts and make them rugged. The servers are ruggedized and made shorter to fit into military racks. Customers need equipment that can go anywhere to be a part of larger wireless infrastructures.

"Most of it is satellite communications," said Rich Perluy, vice president of marketing and customer service at Augmentix, of Austin, Texas. "We're part of a broader data network where our server is actually running the data suite or network and it hooks up to external devices that do the communication."

Augmentix deployed its rugged servers aboard Navy ships for shipboard wide-area networks. The servers perform functions such as authentication, firewall, e-mail and data storage.

"More robust networks are necessary as the Navy launches more mobile networks and personnel uses many more devices aboard the ships," said Jim Sauer, vice president of sales and business development at Augmentix.

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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