ONLINE BUYING

Wireless ASPs just might be the best way to keep up with change

J.B. Miles

Does the government need a czar to exercise top-down control over wireless networks, the wireless Web, cell phones, personal digital assistants and other devices?

The gut reaction, and probably the right one, is perish the thought. We don't need a wireless boss. But agencies do need some way to ride herd over the exploding wireless field, with its conflicting standards and wide array of evolving technologies that may or may not be here to stay.

If government information technology teams can't keep up'and who can blame them if they can't?'maybe they need to outsource the job to providers that can.

There's a new category of outsourcers: wireless-enabling application service providers, or W-ASPs, that focus on the various aspects of wireless technology. Although I share the concerns of critics that the cost-benefit ratios of IT outsourcing must be carefully monitored, I think that in this case a call for outside help is justified.

Sure, you should keep a close eye on W-ASPs to make sure they know what they're doing and are worth the money invested in them. But many agencies just might need them to help keep up with the rest of the world on wireless.

The wireless industry is growing like wildfire and is thoroughly balkanized. And the government isn't keeping up with the changes. How can overworked government IT folks possibly stay current with a hodgepodge of incompatible wireless networking standards denoted by brain-numbing acronyms such as CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications)? The litany would be funny, except that if you're using AT&T Wireless (TDMA), you can't communicate with a cohort across the country using Pacific Bell (GSM).

I've always liked Metricom Inc.'s Ricochet all-digital network; it's one of the best for wireless data transfers. But what if you buy a Ricochet modem and want to use it outside the 16 metropolitan areas currently served by Metricom? You guessed it. You're out of luck.

Then there's WAP, the Wireless Application Protocol. In theory, it will help any type of wireless phone, PDA or Internet appliance connect with the Web over any wireless carrier's network. Don't believe it.

WAP is a great idea whose time hasn't yet come. Ever try to read a Web page at 14.4 Kbps on a five-line screen?

There are plenty of cases in which a Palm VIIx or a Handspring Visor Platinum personal digital assistant could be an important component of a federal worker's communications. But what if I had to select PDAs for 6,000 federal employees located all over the country? What's the main priority for these folks'e-mail, Web browsing, or connectivity with PCs and notebooks?

What about third-generation wireless services? They're going to be great, because they will use a fat wireless pipe of up to 2 Gbps for Internet and multimedia services. But because of the megabucks developers must spend on licensing in the United States, it will take several more years for them to serve up 3G devices.

Finally, there's the issue of competing indoor wireless standards, such as HomeRF, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The problems in keeping up with wireless don't stop there. But wireless also has a lot of benefits, and it will find a bigger place in government. The only real questions are how, when and where it will best be used.

The federal government needs to develop an open-ended wireless plan that will take care of today's business and account for future developments in this fast-paced industry.

The best way to fulfill this could be to buy the services of companies that will be responsible for maintenance and upgrades in a fast-changing field of technology.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@gte.net.

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