Feds wary over wireless

Feds wary over wireless

Concerns about making the jump have a familiar ring


As wireless enterprise applications become mainstream, agencies face many of the same questions they grappled with during the PC revolution two decades ago.

ITC's Martin Smith jokes that he's the most frequent user of a WAP app he created.
Who needs to use wireless handheld devices? How will agencies secure them? How much of an agency's scarce resources will wireless applications consume? Is this spending really necessary?

'As an organization, I think we're still trying to come to operations manager for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 9 Office in San Francisco.

Some wireless devices make high-profile news. Former Vice President Al Gore reportedly used a BlackBerry two-way pager from Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, to manage his e-mail. In March, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told the press that he sometimes surfs the Internet from his Palm VIIx handheld computer from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., during committee hearings.

Yet at agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, all wireless development projects are on hold until top officials implement a policy governing deployment and use.

One case at a time

Officials at some decentralized organizations such as NASA and the Interior Department said they make decisions about wireless projects on a case-by-case basis.

James E. Doleazal, chief of the Telecommunications System Division in Interior's IRM Office, said he sees wireless apps as nice to have but not yet mission-critical.

'We're having enough problems meeting 508 around here,' Doleazal said, referring to the imminent deadlines for making information technology products accessible to disabled users as required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments.

Wireless enterprise applications go beyond the familiar functions of cellular phones and pagers. Service providers in the mobile apps market are promising easy remote access to databases and other enterprise resources.

As agency officials ponder a wireless application, they first have to decide on a platform based on the app's function and data entry and graphics requirements.

Wireless apps can run on a host of platforms from subnotebook computers and personal digital assistants to handhelds and Web-ready phones. Many apps are designed only for wired cradle-to-PC synchronization.

Also, not all cellular phones can access applications using the Wireless Application Protocol. Even WAP-enabled phones must subscribe to a wireless service, usually for an additional fee.
Martin Smith, director of the Information Systems Office at the International Trade Commission, said he has placed a WAP application in the middle of his forest, but he wonders whether anyone else hears it.

Smith spearheaded the development of a WAP version of www.directory.gov, a Web site that provides white-page listings of employees in 22 federal agencies. So far the wireless version has seen little use, he said.

Wireless lingo

2G: Second-generation digital cellular phones.

Emulator: A program that simulates a wireless client on a desktop PC. Used for application development.

LDAP: Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, used for retrieving directory information via WAP browsers as well as with standard PC browsers.

PDA: Personal digital assistant, or a handheld computer that usually lacks a keyboard.

WAP: Wireless Application Protocol for wireless phones and pagers. The WAP Forum, an industry consortium at www.wapforum.org, governs and promotes the protocol as a standard.

Web clipping: Extraction of useful data from a Web site for display on a PDA.

WML: Wireless Markup Language, a subset of Extensible Markup Language for displaying documents on wireless devices with small screens and low bandwidth.

WMLScript: A dialect of JavaScript optimized for wireless client applications.

When Smith learned about WAP and the Wireless Markup Language about a year ago, he realized that WAP-enabling the directory site would be relatively easy. WML is a subset of the Extensible Markup Language designed for wireless devices.

Whether an information request comes from a WAP-enabled phone or a standard Web browser, the data in the response comes from the same directory via the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Smith said.

When a query arrives, the Federal White Pages server, running open-source Apache Web Server software, recognizes it as coming from a wireless phone or a standard browser, Smith said.

The server generates the search results in either WML for a phone or Hypertext Markup Language for a desktop browser.

It's all mine

Smith hired a contractor, IntegrationWireless Inc. of Washington, to build the WAP application for less than $5,000.

The phone version has been online since last summer, Smith said, but hits from WAP-enabled phones have been few and far between.

'I'm easily the biggest user of this thing,' Smith said.

The problem, it seems, is that few phone users bother to pay the extra fee so that their phones can access a few lines of stripped-down, graphics-free Web text. Fewer still even know whether the phone is capable of WAP services.

'The biggest obstacle is [that] most people aren't interested in horoscopes or stock prices, so they don't pay the 10 bucks a month or whatever' for the optional Web service, Smith said.

He advised agency IT staffs to consider how much reworking a Web site needs to be usable on different form factors. The Federal White Pages site was suitable, but most users wouldn't want to read long documents on a WAP phone, he said.

EPA's Beer said he and his San Francisco colleagues have much more experience with PDAs running the Palm OS than with WAP phones. The Region 9 Office even has a monthly meeting for Palm users, whether they use government-owned or personal devices.

Total PDA use in the Region 9 Office likely runs between 10 percent and 20 percent of the work force, but it's hard to track personal PDAs, Beer said.

EPA's Technology Operations Office and some of the agency's regional offices are developing an enterprisewide PDA policy for security, password protection and virus protection issues, Beer said. Regions 8 and 9, which together serve 10 western states, are leading the effort.

Region 9 officials haven't yet started planning specific enterprise apps for wireless devices. 'We just aren't far enough along' to propose specific applications, Beer said.

Elsewhere in the government, a Federal Reserve Board application designed for wireless PDAs has been up and running since last summer. The wireless service lets users obtain press releases and other announcements from the Federal Reserve.

PDAs with a Web browser can access the application at www.federalreserve.gov/wireless/wireless.htm. Owners of Palm VII and VIIx devices must download and install a Web-clipping application before they can use the service.

A summer project

Jeff Dawson, an application developer at the Federal Reserve, said an intern and a developer who has since left the agency developed the wireless service last summer.

The application, developed using ColdFusion from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, grabs Web pages as they are updated but omits charts and graphics in Adobe Portable Document Format. Board staff members use ColdFusion for most Web development work, Dawson said.

Dawson said he doesn't have any user statistics for the Federal Reserve wireless app but hopes to learn how to collect such data.

About 50 senior managers at the Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va., use BlackBerry e-mail pagers, said Donal E. Meynig, the command's director of information management. He predicted that number might increase to 200 by the end of the year.

For Meynig, one prime reason behind the decision to deploy the BlackBerry is its embedded use of the Triple Data Encryption Standard. The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently certified the BlackBerry 950 and 957 kernels under Federal Information Processing Standard 140-1.

The BlackBerrys are always on and always connected to the users' e-mail system, Meynig said.
The command's BlackBerry pagers are password-protected and erase their contents after 10 failed log-in attempts, he said.

About 20 percent of the command's BlackBerry carriers no longer use notebook computers while on travel, he said.

In the future, it's possible that the command could use the BlackBerry pagers to access Web applications, but that would lead to additional service charges, Meynig said.

Carolyn K. Offutt, EPA's Superfund webmaster, has plenty of ideas for wireless devices in the field and for presenting the business case to agency chiefs.

For example, EPA's emergency responders often need to make decisions in the field, Offutt said. At the site of a hazardous-materials spill, on-scene coordinators could require topographical information for an unfamiliar region.

Handheld computers linked wirelessly to a database of chemicals also could aid field workers who collect soil and water samples, Offutt said. Rapid feedback could help the field analysts decide whether to take samples five or 50 meters apart.

Such sampling and mapping applications are better suited to a PDA than a WAP phone because of the PDA's larger screen. But, Offutt said, 'it won't be long before the phone and the PDA are the same instrument and the phone will have a larger screen.'

Alan Paller
So far, the EPA wireless apps are visionary rather than pilot projects. Offutt said her discussions with IT colleagues got her interested in making a business case for wireless devices.
At a March conference, Offutt suggested that federal IT staffs assess how their agencies already feel about adopting new technology before pressing forward with proposals.

She also recommended lots of pilots and planning to overcome resistance.

Another agency approaching the wireless world with caution is INS.

G.E. Woodford, the service's security program manager, said his agency is not doing any active studies or pilots, merely trying to keep up with what's happening in industry. He said he's more concerned with PDAs than with WAP phones.

'We are not in the business of finding a need for a particular technology,' said Alan Shelton, assistant commissioner for systems integration at INS.

For the most part, security problems from handheld computers and WAP phones are not what people think they are, said Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute of Bethesda, Md.

'The risk is not anywhere near the risk of connecting a computer to the Internet and leaving it there,' Paller said. When using wireless devices, feds should worry more about inadvertently downloading viruses or Trojan horses, he added.

Watch for pickpockets

Paller acknowledged that handheld devices are more easily lost or misplaced than larger computers.

Lee Holcomb
The extra risk with handhelds is the theft of an e-mail password, but that would be a problem only if the user accessed e-mail directly from an agency server, Paller said.

One agency that might be a prime candidate for wireless technology is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But one FEMA project manager said his agency relies mainly on satellite communications.

FEMA personnel are not the first responders to an emergency, said Timothy Ritter, who works for FEMA's Information Technology Services Directorate in Bluemont, Va.

'At first glance, people would think we have a big use for [handheld devices], but we really don't,' Ritter said.

When FEMA sends workers to register victims for federal disaster assistance, it sets up temporary offices connected to satellite trucks with voice, data and video links to FEMA's internal network, Ritter said.

Lee Holcomb, NASA's chief information officer, said his agency doesn't have an enterprise effort to develop handheld apps, but many NASA employees use their own PDAs as information managers.

Each NASA office must make a business case for developing wireless apps, he said.


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