What's next for wireless nets

Senate CIO Greg Hanson goes wireless on the Hill.

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson

Senate takes an 'every-flavor' approach on the Hill, while new technologies promise to expand distance, speed and connectivity

Will wires someday become obsolete? Greg Hanson, CIO for the Senate Sergeant at Arms, thinks it's possible.

'Going down the road, wireless is where we're headed,' he said. 'Wireless gives you the flexibility to move around. It gives you freedom. Wireless is inevitable.'

Not incidentally, it also would help Congress function in an emergency.

Hanson and his IT team are going full bore on wireless technologies. They're midway through an initiative to outfit the Senate's Capitol Hill buildings with a robust wireless infrastructure.

'We're implementing what we need to accomplish the vision of giving senators, staffs and committees the ability to do their job anytime, anywhere and under any circumstances,' he said. 'Wireless is key to that.'

Wireless technologies already are widely used around the Senate, including virtually all carriers and varieties of cell phones, handheld devices, pagers, e-mail clients and wireless-enabled notebook PCs, Hanson said.

'We depend on every flavor of wireless,' he said.

Choice is the cornerstone of the Senate's wireless operations.

'We have senators from all over the country who have different likes and dislikes and different ideas about technology, just like all people do,' Hanson said. 'My customers demand choice. Within reason, I'm here to give them choice.'

A goal of the wireless initiative is to ensure full coverage in and around Senate buildings for all those cell phones, personal digital assistants and BlackBerry devices, which are exceedingly popular around the Senate campus.

There are currently several thousand BlackBerry users among the roughly 10,000 users that the Senate CIO shop supports.

'The problem is that in certain parts of the Senate campus now you can't get coverage on certain devices,' he said. 'For example, if I'm walking around the campus and I'm on certain floors in certain buildings, I can get BlackBerry coverage and T-Mobile coverage but I can't get Cingular or Verizon coverage.

'When we finish this, we'll have the infrastructure in place to support all flavors of cell phones,' he continued. 'It will be cell-phone agnostic in terms of carriers. All the carriers will be on board.'
Once the program is complete, the Senate will lease bandwidth back to the carriers, which will help pay for the system, Hanson said. 'We expect the system to pay for itself in a few years,' he said.

The other element of the initiative is the installation of an 802.11b wireless LAN, or WiFi, throughout the Senate buildings.

For Hanson, 802.11b is simply an extension of the Senate's wired, switched network.

One of the hurdles is mounting wireless access points in the Senate's buildings.

'You get into issues when you start wiring historic buildings,' he said. 'You have to be careful because there's a lot of art in the buildings. In the Capitol, the walls and ceilings are all art. There is some complexity to that.'

Security also is an issue.

'We view our 802.11b network as a portion of our switched network, a remote-access extension of it,' Hanson said. 'So we apply the same type of security practices and models to the wireless network as we do to the wired network.'

Technicians are installing the system building by building, floor by floor. Hanson expects it to be complete by late fall. He anticipates 6,000 to 7,000 wireless users once the infrastructure is implemented.

The Senate's wireless infrastructure will support both daily computing and communications operations as well as emergency operations.

Hanson envisions wide-ranging and creative uses for wireless technologies in emergency operations on the Hill.

'If we have to evacuate the buildings, we have a lot of people that we need to account for and keep track of,' he said. 'One way you could do that is by hand'on paper with spreadsheets. Or you could use wireless technology and deploy tablet PCs and smart-card readers out into the field and account for people.'

'One of the things about wireless that makes it so exciting is that there are so many new technologies coming on fast,' Hanson added. 'We're looking at a bunch of those.'

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