Wi-Fi in the city (cover test 2)

Now funded by economic grants, city wireless networks may soon provide integrators with opportunities Sizing up who will succeed in government IT market Biometric technologies not sole answer to security

In early October, citizens and visitors to Athens, Ga., will enjoy free wireless network access across 24 blocks downtown. Anyone with a personal digital assistant, or handheld or laptop computer with a wireless network access card can surf the Internet or tap into Web sites of local shops.

Athens joins a number of other cities and towns that offer the public wireless online access -- sometimes free -- in specific areas of town. Other municipalities with wireless access to the Internet are Jacksonville, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Ashland, Ore.; and New York's Bryant Park district in Manhattan.

These areas are following the lead of companies such as Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., which offers wireless access in its coffee shops as a way to attract customers. Local leaders are hoping they can create vibrant business zones that draw both companies and consumers.

Establishing these community "Wi-Fi" hot spots, as they are known, is an idea that many cities and even states, such as Utah, are mulling over, said William Clark, a mobile systems research director for Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "The idea is to make your venues more attractive," he said.

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity, the nickname given to products using the 802.11 standards for wireless transmissions.

Under this approach, public gathering places such as libraries, parks, town squares, malls, business districts and schools would be outfitted with public Internet access.

Gartner estimated that 450 Wi-Fi hot spots will spring up by the end of this year, often with multiple hot spots in a single city. Gartner expects that number to grow to 3,900 by 2005.

A community access node covering a small area, such as a library, can be set up for as little as $900, Clark said, citing a "hot spot in a box" solution offered by wireless service provider Boingo Wireless Inc., Santa Monica, Calif. Networks covering larger areas could cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Most of these public wireless networks have been largely built by volunteers, either students from nearby colleges or local shops encouraged by the town's chamber of commerce. Equipment is often paid for by economic development grants or donated by equipment vendors.

However, as the practice grows more popular, future rollouts may be completed -- and funded -- by the towns and cities themselves.

"I think you will see more and more municipalities make a play in infrastructure," said James Higbe, president of Jacksonville, Fla.-based wireless integrator Connexsys Inc., which donated its services for the rollout there.

And as the footprint of these networks grows, municipalities may turn to integrators, Higbe said. Citywide coverage will require an enterprise approach, and expansions will be completed more efficiently by integrators rather than by each city individually tackling a project.

Clark said the projects in Athens and the other cities are laying the groundwork for more expansive public offerings.

"These projects really are the guinea pigs. They're put in place to find out what works and what doesn't," he said.

The economic benefits that public wireless access will bring to Athens are clear, said Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute, which is part of University of Georgia and oversees the town's wireless project.

By establishing standards for wireless access throughout the town, citizens will be able to freely roam through downtown with their wireless devices constantly connected to the Internet.

Shamp said that, thanks to the proliferation of low-cost wireless equipment, many small wireless zones are already set up in many cities. Numerous access points also can be found on college campuses and at coffee shops and stores.

However, users cannot roam about and maintain a wireless connection because the nodes are not standardized. Clark, for example, said he lives in an area with four different public access points, each requiring a reconfiguration of his PDA.

What municipalities such as Athens can offer is a platform for interoperability among the different Wi-Fi hot spots. By setting up citywide access, Athens establishes standards to which other parties can agree, Shamp said. It also covers those areas not deemed profitable by private business, allowing the city to offer the claim of having complete coverage.

The Athens project will cost under $75,000, Shamp said. "We joke that this is not state of the art. It is state of the Wal-Mart. It shows that the technology is ready to be used," he said.

Athens and Clarke County have donated space on light poles throughout Athens for access points, as well as power to run them. Most of the equipment used is low-cost, commercially available 802.11b and 802.11a equipment offered by vendors such as LinkSys Group Inc., Irvine, Calif.

Development money was obtained through a grant from University of Georgia and the Georgia Research Institute, a philanthropic public-private partnership that funds research projects to strengthen Georgia's economy.

The project also received donations from local businesses. Much of the work is done by local college student volunteers, though the organization hopes to hire an individual full time to run the network.

Jacksonville began offering a similar wireless network for its downtown riverfront area in August 2001.

The project is being run by several partners, said David Grant, a general manager for the Boardwalk Group. The Jacksonville company provided project management, while BellSouth Corp., Atlanta, supplied the Internet connectivity, and Connexsys did the network design and handles customer support.

Like Athens, Jacksonville hopes this wireless zone will become a template for expanding wireless access to other parts of the city, Grant said.

The wireless network also is being used as a way to bridge the digital divide. Wireless may be the most cost-effective way to provide Internet access to impoverished neighborhoods, Higbe said.

Even when a city sets the standards for a citywide wireless access, it doesn't necessarily maintain the infrastructure. Instead, a city can act as a franchiser by granting a provider rights to offer citywide public service, as is frequently done for cable television.

Pittsburgh is testing this approach. A number of neighborhood wireless access points have been set up there through a nonprofit foundation called Three Rivers Connect. Managing the network is Pittsburgh service provider Grok Technology Inc.

Although the pilot projects now under way are free for public use, a subscription fee may eventually be charged, said Danette O'Connell, Grok CEO.

Citing similar privately run network service providers in Austin, Texas, and Seattle, as well as national carriers such as Boingo and Toledo, Ohio-based Airpath Wireless Inc., O'Connell said local network providers will band together to offer their customers nationwide service, cooperating as cellular phone companies do to host each other's customers on their networks.

In this arrangement, O'Connell said Pittsburgh is a potential partner that could share in the revenue a wireless network could produce. In exchange for placing antennas on public buildings, Grok will offer the city a percentage of revenue it generates from subscribers using that access point. A courthouse with an access point, for instance, can generate revenue from visiting lawyers who need to retrieve files from their offices.

"If you put wireless access in a public building, there will be a return on investment from that one way or another," O'Connell said.

Another approach involving public-private partnerships is being employed by Ashland, Ore. Under the Ashland Unwired project, the city lets businesses offer access to their customers through the city's fiber-optic backbone, said Kristina Wurtz, spokeswoman for Project A Inc. The company is one of two Ashland network solution providers certified by the city to assist local businesses in setting up access points. The other is Open Door Networks Inc.

The Ashland Unwired project has thus far signed up 12 local businesses, ranging from the Ashland Community Hospital to the Siskiyou Brew Pub.

"Every city is taking a slightly different approach," O'Connell said. *

Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at


Since Sept. 11, investors and market analysts have correctly identified the government information technology market as a good sector for investment. While this is a sound strategy for many reasons, all companies will not prosper.

The size and scope of the opportunity in this sector can differ from company to company, depending on the degree to which each company has aligned its thinking and organized its resources with market realities.

The continuing migration in government IT from staff augmentation to outsourcing shows no signs of abating. Historically, government agencies purchased support services to augment employee teams, managed by supervisors. Today, government executives are looking to buy solutions.

Government entities, faced with shrinking staffs and retirements of key people, want full-scope capabilities from their service providers, including situational analysis, alternatives identification and selection, solution architecture, implementation and -- increasingly -- operation.

There are other factors supporting these IT contracting trends. Military transformation has high-priority focus on interoperability. The communications element within and between organizations is paramount. And IT capability is the foundation, the platform upon which interoperable communications systems will be designed and implemented.

Systems modernizations at the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Customs Service, among others, will require complex, enterprise-scope solutions. Another factor is government reorganization, most particularly the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

As a consequence of the number and scope of government IT projects, the emergence of Web-based systems and the goal of improved data sharing among agencies, the Office of Management and Budget set forth 24 e-government initiatives and placed a temporary hold on major projects pending OMB review.

Taken together, these government objectives, and the priorities attached to them, provide a target-rich market for well-positioned government IT companies.

For some IT businesses, the emerging environment is more of a threat than an opportunity. Segmentation of IT companies into four tiers helps in assessing the performance outlook. Based upon revenue size, the breakdown is: tier 1, more than $1 billion; tier 2, $250 million to $1 billion; tier 3, $30 million to $250 million; tier 4, under $30 million.

Successful companies will combine all elements of an effective solution into their offerings.

This is a very complex environment, requiring significant resource mobilization, pricing, costing, negotiating and project management skills. While staff augmentation has its place, it will capture a shrinking proportion of government budgets, generally, at lower margins.

Typically, tier 1 companies will lead on large, complex IT projects. In these circumstances, companies in tiers 3 and 4 will serve as subcontractors. For most of the smaller IT projects, companies in tiers 2 through 4 will be best cast in a prime contractor role.

Focus and depth in critical IT segments will increase in importance for all companies, but is most critical for tiers 2 and 3. Companies in tier 4 will continue to benefit from contract set asides under 8(a) and small business preference programs.

At the end of the day, the winners will be companies that can think in terms of problem-solving based upon available IT. The size and growth of government information management needs, considered in the context of ongoing upgrades in technology tools, suggest a long-term, robust market for government IT companies.

Well-managed companies can expect double-digit, organic revenue growth, profit margin expansion and acquisition opportunities. *

Jerry Grossman is managing director at Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin in McLean, Va. He can be reached at jgrossman@hlhz.com.

Don't think biometric access devices are silver bullets for your security vulnerabilities. In fact, if not applied correctly, they can create new gaps in security.

The USA Patriot Act, signed into law in October 2001, gave fresh impetus to adoption of biometrics, which vendors were earlier touting as password replacement devices.

Now that they've come under close scrutiny by government and private labs, such as that operated by Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News, companies have acknowledged that biometric devices are effective only when used in conjunction with other forms of authentication.

To ensure these devices protect rather than compromise security, it's important to clear up some misconceptions. The most common of these is that one type of device is good for all applications. Before thinking about biometrics, you've got to think about precisely what it is you're trying to protect: an entrance to a building? A computer network? A data center?

Earlier this year, I reviewed both facial and iris recognition products. Some are designed more for perimeter security than for computer access.

Facial recognition products are less obtrusive than fingerprint devices. They can adjust to changing appearances of an individual. By contrast, most fingerprint devices often won't work if the user's authentication finger is obscured by food, grease or injury.

Biometric devices used for perimeter security are difficult to tamper with, because the servers containing the biometric data are inside the perimeter or in some remote location. But facial recognition has the added advantage of letting you record videos of comings and goings.

I've found that in some instances, facial recognition authenticates faster than fingerprints and is more reliable than many forms of fingerprint recognition, specifically devices with optical sensors.

On the other hand, fingerprint authentication is a better choice on a standalone computer mainly because, unlike facial biometrics technology, it is not affected by change in light. Lighting -- direction, quality and intensity -- seriously impact facial recognition software. And with more users, the reliability of facial recognition can decline, particularly if you can't control the lighting and there are shadows. Quite simply, it is easy to fool a facial recognition engine.

This point leads to two other common misconceptions. One is that the purpose of biometrics is to eliminate the password, and the second is that trying to fool a biometric device is easy.

Because the technology isn't 100 percent reliable, you should always deploy biometrics along with regular passwords, or a keypad for door control systems.

All biometric devices read or measure a physical characteristic and store the results in a database. With most systems, those results -- that is, users' profiles -- are adjusted, converted into an algorithm and encrypted before storing.

The security weakness with biometrics exists between the device that records the biometric information and the computer. That middleware could be hacked, giving the unauthorized user full access.

Fortunately, because the industry is assumed to be on the beginning of a growth curve, companies are getting more specialized, dividing up the development of software and hardware. This split in development, typified by the relationship between Panasonic Security and Digital Imaging Co. and Iridian Technologies Inc., is helping the technology mature and gain customer acceptance.

If a hacker was to gain access to your biometric template, chances are he wouldn't capture any of your users' physical characteristics, since most systems convert recorded traits into numbers and characters impossible to reverse engineer.

So where is the industry heading? I believe iris recognition and facial recognition, where developments are occurring rapidly, are the next big things in biometric security. They're growing more reliable, but they are not inexpensive. Facial recognition infrastructures can cost upward of $20,000 to secure a small area.

I have no doubt that biometric technology is here to stay. By itself, it won't save your network from intelligent and determined evildoers, but it nevertheless can add a secure layer to your network and act as a stronger deterrent. *

Carlos Soto is an associate editor of Government Computer News and is a technology reviewer with an expertise in security, storage, wireless devices and digital cameras. His reviews of biometric technologies can be found with this article at www.washingtontechnology.com.


Technology for Controlling Access

Agency: Navy Space and Naval

Warfare Systems Center

Status: Pre-RFP

Purpose: Provide access control to facilities and IT networks of the Navy and the rest of the Defense Department.


IDENT/IAFIS Integration Project

Agency: Justice Department

Status: Pre-RFP

Purpose: Integrate the fingerprint databases of the Immigration and

Naturalization Service and the FBI into

a single database.


Internet Software Security Package

Agency: Social Security


Status: Pre-RFP

Purpose: Provide security for

applications hosted on the agency's WebSphere applications.


Overseas Refugee

Fingerprinting Program

Agency: Immigration and

Naturalization Service

Status: Pre-RFP

Purpose: Identify and track refugees seeking asylum in the United States.


Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

What is your e-mail address?

My e-mail address is:

Do you have a password?

Forgot your password? Click here


  • POWER TRAINING: How to engage your customers

    Don't miss our Aug. 2 Washington Technology Power Training session on Mastering Stakeholder Engagement, where you'll learned the critical skills you need to more fully connect with your customers and win more business. Read More


    In our latest Project 38 Podcast, editor Nick Wakeman interviews Tom Romeo, the leader of Maximus Federal about how it has zoomed up the 2019 Top 100. Read More

contracts DB

Washington Technology Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.