West Virginia expands mobile phone options for state workers

Wireless devices have become an important tool for business and government users, but their security risks have tended to restrict organizations to a limited set of approved handsets and vendors. The downside to this approach is that agencies get locked into a limited set of features in a market that is constantly producing new innovations.

West Virginia wants to open its lineup of acceptable devices. In doing so, it is deploying a new software-based system that would allow users to securely access business-related information from any mobile device.

Although the state is still limiting user options to a selection of vetted devices, the technology could potentially allow government employees to safely use their own personal mobile handheld devices for work — and vice versa.

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For starters, the new program allows state employees to request iPhones, Android-based smart phones and iPads for personal and business purposes. All of the new devices are equipped with software from enterprise mobility firm Good Technology that allows users to make secure government calls and messages from their devices.

Like most government organizations, West Virginia has used Research in Motion BlackBerrys for many years as its primary wireless device, said Kyle Schafer, the state’s chief technology officer. But as new technologies such as Android devices and iPhones took hold in the market, many state employees wanted them. In other cases, staff preferred to use their own phones to conduct state business, he said.

However, when the state’s security team assessed the Android devices and iPhones, it advised against their use because the devices did not have the same security features that BlackBerry offered, such as a remote wipe capability and encryption that put the state in control of the medium.

After some research by the state’s client services staff, Good Technology’s Good For Enterprise mobile platform was brought in on a trial basis. By using the software, the state found it could adequately secure sensitive information and introduce new technologies, Schafer said.

How it works

Good Technology segregates confidential business data from personal information on a user’s mobile device using software containers. The containers have their own encryption and policy controls and can be used on any personal or government-issued device, including those without built-in encryption.

The software platform has been running on a test basis on the state systems for six months. Based on initial reactions, it is extremely popular — especially when marketed with Apple iPhone, Schafer said. iPhones are the more appealing part of the package to state employees rather than the Good software, he added.

“We just didn’t feel comfortable marketing one without the other,” he said.

By the end of the year, the state is planning to release two Android devices that will also use the Good platform. Schafer’s office is also considering tablet computers such as the iPad, he said. All of these devices would be loaded with Good Technology’s software.

Even so, the state isn’t moving away from BlackBerrys, still used by about 1,000 state workers. Instead, the iPhone and Android systems are an additional option, said Schafer, who added that there has been a significant upswing in user preference based on the program’s initial results during the past few months.

Schafer said he expects to see a 15 to 20 percent decline in BlackBerry use over time. But he said the state would continue to support its current ranks of BlackBerry users as well as an anticipated 1,000 additional iPhone-type devices by the end of the year.

Schafer said he does not expect BlackBerry users to abandon the platform suddenly or in large numbers. It’s more likely that the number of users seeking iPhones and other non-BlackBerry options will grow as more devices become available across the state. “BlackBerry is really what everybody’s accustomed to using,” he said.

In general, Schafer appears optimistic that smart phones can be a professional office tool. There are a number of applications for the devices that state workers can use, he said, including Facebook and other social media apps that could be used to announce or share state information. The device-based applications would also be easy for employees to use, Schafer said.

Home phones

There is also a growing demand from workers to bring their own devices into the workplace. If West Virginia permits such an arrangement, the state might be able to earn a positive return on investment by offering staff members a variety of technology and services, Schafer said.

The state is also developing its own applications for iPhones and iPads, Schafer said. It recently produced its first mobile app that allows young people to take a practice test for their driver’s licenses. Schafer said the app was developed to test for any potential bugs or difficulties in the process. Another goal was to test demand for the applications. Demand for the test application is steadily growing, he said.

One of the major challenges in West Virginia is the lack of broadband Internet connectivity as well as cellular and 4G service, Schafer said. The state has been awarded one of the largest broadband grants in the nation, $126 million, to help change that. As cellular and broadband services are deployed throughout the state, he said he believes there will be an increased demand for wireless access.

The state’s broadband initiative is focused on primarily providing services for communities without any cellular or wired access. Schafer said the plan is to focus on wireless backbone applications as the primary means of providing Internet and cellular access. However, many communities are not asking for broadband services because they do not even have wireless access in their areas.

“We really do want to make applications more accessible through these new mobile devices,” Schafer said. “We think that this is the wave of the future — it’s not a fad.”


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