Internaut: Boost for wireless government

Shawn P. McCarthy

Internet wireless services can push photos, public records and other information out to police and border guards. If the price point drops low enough, such wireless access could extend to every maintenance engineer, social worker or government parking lot manager.

That would magnify the number of government eyes and ears on the street. If a suspect were wanted for questioning, a photo, license number or other data could be beamed out to the people likeliest to see the suspect.

But few cell phones can receive photos today, and very few government workers carry a notebook PC with broadband wireless access. Here are some developments that could change that:
  • Ricochet, the defunct high-speed wireless Internet provider, could rise again and be a boon to city governments with mobile workers.

    Shut down more than a year ago, the Metricom Inc. service once operated in 21 cities. At $80 per month and $250 per modem, its price was too steep to attract a broad subscriber base.

    Ricochet re-emerged last year when New York City officials paid to have the city's wireless access point turned back on for temporary Net connectivity around the World Trade Center ruins. The current owner, Aerie Networks of Denver, is running tests there and might also restore service in San Diego. The proposed price is $100 per modem plus $45 per month for service. See details at www.ricochet.com.

  • WiFi, the nickname for short-range, fast wireless service based on the IEEE 802.11b standard, has been available for limited business applications for a couple of years. Public access is now being tested in places such as coffee shops. WiFi works well where employees remain in the same area but roam up to 300 feet from their desks.

    There are security concerns about government use, however. The National Institute of Standards and Technology last month labeled current WiFi and other wireless connectivity risky. A draft report covering security improvements in the standard appears at csrc.nist.gov/publications/draftsdrafts.html.

  • We'll see a real jump in usability when a standard emerges for roaming from one WiFi device to another. Right now there is no single handoff protocol for transfers, somewhat similar to moving an active cell phone call from one cell to another without interruption.

Word has it that wireless WLAN networks will beat third-generation cell phone networks at this game because they are easier and cheaper to build. For more information, see the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance site, at www.weca.net.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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