With mail safety still iffy, Hill upgrades e-mail

With mail safety still iffy, Hill upgrades e-mail

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was one of 440 representatives to receive a BlackBerry handheld device. The Senate began distributing the units in November. Eventually senators will use them for e-mail and other handheld functions.

A great influx of e-mail to Congress never materialized after the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks, but officials in both houses expect the use of e-mail and other digital technologies to grow. To accommodate the increase, the House and Senate are upgrading their e-mail systems.

Surface mail distribution to Congress resumed in November. Mail was distributed after being irradiated by electron beam devices from Titan Corp. of San Diego and Ion Beam Applications Inc. of Chicago to kill any microorganisms it might contain.

Even with the return of postal delivery, some lawmakers want to learn how technology can make mail safer and improve communication.

'Our priorities on mail have been first to safely recommence first-class mail and determine how to handle boxes and packages, and then to examine how to present hard mail in electronic form,' said Reynold Schweickhardt, director of technology for the House Administration Committee. 'We haven't gotten into specific approaches or vendors, but we are examining this issue closely to find a more resilient long-term process.'

Happy returns

Schweickhardt said the House is exploring how to digitize mail by using optical character recognition software to scan it into Adobe Portable Document Format and e-mail it from a central repository.

Schweickhardt said the biggest roadblock to using the technology is the concern that someone other than a congressional office staff member would be opening the mail.

'We want to reach member offices and gather their requirements before going forward with a plan,' he said.

Mark Amtower, an Amtower & Co. partner who has followed government mailing policies for 18 years, said digital mail could be an answer, but it likely would be too slow and cumbersome.

'There is a certain amount of mail that could not be digitized,' he said. 'But things like constituent action material would be very easy to digitize because the offices do not save the hard copy anyway. Really, there are no easy solutions to the problem of how to keep mail completely safe.'

The Senate is addressing the problem with efforts to improve inbound and outbound e-mail and communications.

It has issued members BlackBerry handheld e-mail devices from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, on a test basis. House members started receiving BlackBerrys last summer, and now all 435 representatives have them.

Senators eventually will use the handhelds for daily e-mail and other calendar and schedule functions after the Senate switches to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange from Lotus cc:Mail.

'The BlackBerrys work more effectively with Outlook and Exchange, but until we finish upgrading all 100 Senate offices and 400 field offices, the handhelds will be used for emergency communications,' said Liz McAlheny, executive assistant to the Senate's Sergeant at Arms.

McAlheny said the mail software upgrade is a massive project. After using cc:Mail for more than 12 years, the Senate was forced to switch after Lotus stopped supporting the program in October.

Late delivery

IT workers planned to install the new software during the summer, but the project was delayed by what McAlheny described as internal issues.

'We had to solve how our current infrastructure had to be updated and how information was to be stored, routed and maintained,' she said.

While the Senate deals with software problems, the House is improving its Internet backbone to provide faster e-mail as well as IP television.

The House will install Cisco Systems Inc. routers on the e-mail backbone to boost its speed from asynchronous transfer mode at 662 Mbps to Gigabit Ethernet, Schweickhardt said. Members in the Cannon building already are using the higher bandwidth. Representatives in the Longworth and Ford buildings will get the upgrade soon.

The IPTV system will use robotic cameras and portable TVs so that at least two more channels can broadcast hearings. It also has multicast capabilities so the network would not be overloaded if many users wanted to watch the same hearing on their computers.

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