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Wireless to the Rescue
Technology Provides Agencies With Innovative By John Makulowich
Solutions for Everyday Situations
Meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements for immunization record keeping was becoming a monumental headache for Col. (Dr.) Renata Engler, chief of the Allergy and Immunology Clinic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.
Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, CDC oversees record keeping of immunizations, both type of shot and dose, a mandatory practice since the early 1990s. With the need to immunize all active-duty soldiers as part of military readiness, that record keeping was becoming a major burden not only on equipment but also on the staff.
"I used to spend a lot of time with spreadsheets," says Engler. "With a high-volume workload, nursing work space that does not make keying in data any easier and staff untrained in working with computers, including both mouse phobic and computer phobic, we faced a major hurdle trying to comply with the CDC rules."
Further, the staff could not readily go from the clinical space to a computer room to key in the critical information. More importantly, the work was a load for which nurses are not normally trained.
And, according to Engler, at the time she needed the software, there were no commercial off-the-shelf products available.
To ease the strain, Engler managed to gather some seed money and went looking for a contractor that could understand their work flow.
"One thing I realized early on was the need to have the application fit our work flow rather than adapt our work flow to fit the application," says Engler. "The answer had to be mobile, had to have a touch screen, had to be wireless; we wanted to record the data right after the shot was given.
"With the contractor, we developed a system for documenting immunization delivery that the most computer-phobic person can learn to use in 45 minutes," she says.
With wireless, Engler was able to get around a common complaint of many end users and those in the field: that most systems are geared to the logistics of administration, not to in-the-field or in-the-clinic data collection.
Engler's case is one of increasingly many where wireless technology is coming to the rescue. As noted in a seminal report, "The Evolution of Untethered Communications," published last December by the National Research Council, wireless systems transmit signals over the air using different frequency transmission bands designated by government regulation.
For the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency charged with regulating its use, Wireless Communications Service (WCS) is defined as "radio communications that may provide fixed, mobile, radiolocation or satellite communication services to individuals and businesses within their assigned spectrum block and geographical area."
In projecting a vision of the future and detailing technical data, the FCC noted that "WCS systems will be able to communicate with other telephone networks as well as with personal digital assistants, allowing subscribers to send and receive data and/or video messages without connection to a wire. ... The WCS is in the 2.3 GHz band of the electromagnetic spectrum from 2305 to 2320 MHz and 2345 to 2360 MHz. The FCC's auction of WCS licenses helps kick off an entirely new industry."
Elliot Maxwell, deputy chief of the FCC's Office of Plans and Policy, says the commission considers wireless to be "extraordinarily important," both because it provides alternatives for companies seeking entry into local markets and because it is robust in creating jobs in those same markets.
"The job of the FCC in terms of wireless is to ensure that there is nothing in the way of furthering the competitive markets, to ensure that spectrum is available," says Maxwell. "We want to encourage the conditions that promote innovation and flexibility, to ensure that interference is prevented."
The spectacular growth in wireless is documented in figures on subscribers and industry finances.
From 1993 to 1997, total U.S. wireless subscribers rose from 36.8 million to 108.3 million. Total U.S. mobile telephone subscribers went from 16.01 million in 1993 to 55.31 million in 1997.
In the same time period, total annual mobile telephone service revenue grew from $10.9 billion to $27.5 billion. U.S. mobile revenues as a percentage of total telecommunications revenues went from 4.5 percent in 1992 to 11.7 percent in 1996.
The most revealing worldwide trend is that global mobile revenues as a percentage of total telecommunications revenues grew from 6 percent in 1992 to 17.6 percent in 1996.
To David Goodman, who chaired the Committee on Evolution of Untethered Communications that produced the NRC report, much remains to be sorted out regarding the wireless issue.
Goodman is director of the Wireless Information Network Laboratory (WINLAB) at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He notes one key fact about wireless is that "it is harder to transfer data at high speed through the air. That speed is related to how far the transmitter and receiver are from one another. Given that, you need to look carefully at the anytime, anywhere communications paradigm."
That model pictures users throughout the world communicating via a wireless Internet at the flick of a switch, any time, from any point.
It is one that intensely interests the military. In fact, the NRC study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in July 1996, and the Committee on the Evolution of Untethered Communications was asked to advise DARPA on where to invest in information technology for mobile wireless systems.
Two years before, DARPA had started the so-called Global Mobile Information Systems program. Its goal was to "develop the technologies that will enable military forces to carry out communication and computing tasks free of tethers - that is, cables to power sources or telecommunications networks. The concept of 'untethered' communications unites mobile and wireless operations."
Among the conclusions Goodman and his group reached was that, for a long time, the military had been a main driver of the envelope of technology. One example is radar, originally developed by the military and now used everywhere.
"The major change is that the commercial sector is now driving the show. We refer to this as spin-on rather than spinoff, as in spinning off technology from military uses," notes Goodman.
With the Internet's popularity and penetration across all sectors, he sees the commercial market driving the notion of a wireless Internet.
"Many of us would like to have access to information on the Internet while we are moving around," says Goodman. "There are times when we can't go running to a bookshelf, so there is a need for that.
"However, I do think that the anytime, anywhere model has been exaggerated a little bit," Goodman says. "After all, neither e-mail nor fax is instantaneous."
One model Goodman promotes is what he calls an info-station, which is based on the concept of how a gas station works. You would have enough of these stations so users would not have to go out of their way to use them, but such stations would not be ubiquitous, not absolutely everywhere.
"We need to think the same way about information, going to a station to plug in and retrieve the information we need when we need it. Right now, if you look at the wireless Internet, there are two kinds of people: those who have too much information, are drowning in it or being flooded by it, and those who can't get enough," laughs Goodman.
His WINLAB at Rutgers is working on tools to handle the deluge. One tool, called Alter Ego, is a collaboration with psychology, computer science and engineering.
"The model here is a personal assistant with artificial intelligence, one who learns our habits and the circumstances in which we are computing," says Goodman. "For example, if I'm using my laptop in a hotel room, I would not expect the personal assistant to send me a color photo for my presentation."
Another effort to encourage innovation in wireless along with other types of telecommunications approaches is the Commerce Department's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP).
The program recently received 757 applications for fiscal year 1998 from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Applicants requested $323 million in federal funds to be matched by $502 million in nonfederal funds.
Since its start in 1994, TIIAP has awarded 332 grants - over $100 million in federal funds matched by $150 million in nonfederal funds.
Funds are awarded in five application areas: education, culture and lifelong learning; public services; health; public safety; and community networking.
Orion 1 communications satellite covers the
eastern United States and Europe. With the
launch of two more satellites, Orion could
increase its government business to about
25 percent on each satellite.
Among the projects funded are:
Communitywide networking to the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Through a partnership, the 2,500 residents of 11 remote Alaskan villages that rely on traditional hunting, fishing and trapping will have Internet access for the first time via satellite connections.
The project offers technical support, training and awareness about the benefits that access can bring to isolated communities.
According to NTIA materials, the primary end users will be tribal members, village council members, village government, community health aid providers, degree program and continuing education students, pre-kindergarten through high school students, school faculty and staff.
Appalachian College Association in Berea, Ky., will guide eight colleges in setting up Rural Information Service Centers in five states: Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.
The program promotes economic development in rural Appalachian communities and technical literacy of residents. Each college will develop a specific project.
For example, West Virginia Wesleyan in Upshur, W.Va., will have a van equipped with computers and a wireless link to the Internet, allowing community groups to conduct training programs in many locations.
Valley Emergency Communications Center in Murray, Utah, will allow several cities in the Salt Lake Valley region of central Utah to link their public safety agencies through a high-speed, secure communications system.
The center will set up an integrated data network to link mobile laptop computers in police, fire and ambulance vehicles and manage multi-agency communications using Cellular Digital Packet Data technology (CDPD), a high-speed, wireless communications technology for instant, secure communications among all vehicles through a single dispatch center.
According to Stephen Downs, the director of the TIIAP program, while there has been an interesting variety of wireless projects submitted, his office has not received many of them.
"The potential for innovation is out there with a wide range of wireless technology available, especially CDPD," says Downs. "However, a lot of wireless is not ubiquitous nationwide. You see CDPD in New York City, but it is not seen everywhere around the country. Generally, it is new for the markets it is in."
When looking toward the future, Downs feels the technology trends will favor not transmission technology, but applications. He has also seen the shift in project submissions.
"In 1994, the reviewers were pleased to see proposals for the Internet. By 1995, though, they were saying, 'Oh my, not another proposal for the Internet,' " jokes Downs. "We would not be surprised to see Java [programming language] and CORBA [Common Object Request Broker Architecture] as part of proposals in the near future."
On the cusp of the future is a company like Orion Network Systems Inc. in Rockville, Md., a global satellite communications firm that offers high-speed Internet connectivity and multimedia services to multinational businesses via small receiving antennas. It also transmits video communications for television and other program distribution services.
John Gruehl, federal sales manager, confirms Goodman's view about the military interest in commercial technology, that the government has gone from buying and operating its own satellite resources to leasing existing commercial capabilities.
"It was near the end of the Cold War that the Defense Department started looking at commercial satellites as a viable alternative. That interest increased with Desert Shield and Desert Storm and then the Bosnia issue," says Gruehl.
Part of the interest was stoked by the increase in data requirements, including intelligence and imaging, as well as by command and control requirements.
And when cost became an issue via the National Performance Review and the Defense Department's desire to reduce overhead, the notion of leasing commercial assets for finite period of time became a reasonable option.
An Air Force airman
uses a hand-held
compass to shoot an
azimuth in order to position
an Inmarsat satellite
dish for mobile phone
use at an operating
base in southwest Asia.
Set for full deployment by the middle of 1999, three Orion satellites will be able to see the farthest east and west from the United States.
And this is what they feel will be their competitive advantage for the government, that Orion will offer world access through one vendor.
Further, each satellite is designed for advanced data communications, not just traditional voice and voice applications.
Orion's existing Orion 1 satellite, which covers the eastern United States and Europe, has about 10 percent of its revenues from government customers.
According to a company spokesperson, "This number will grow on Orion 1. Once we launch our two new satellites, one for Asia and one for Latin American and Europe as far east as the former Soviet Union, we would expect that our government business could increase to as much as 25 percent of the business on each satellite." n