Wireless technology in the US public sector runs the gamut, from top-secret espionage and defense applications to mundane office-worker applications designed to replace paper forms and improve productivity.

Judging by the number of deployments and the unusual nature of the applications, analysts say the public sector stands out as a leader in its use of wireless.

In fact, a September survey by Forrester Research of nearly 900 large organizations, including various levels of government, determined that the public sector is the leading adopter of mobile IT when compared with large private-sector companies. In a separate survey, IDC also ranked the public sector as a top adopter of wireless and mobile technologies.

Mobile email clears Pennsylvania's paper
IDC reports that the most popular use of wireless in government is e-mail on laptops and handhelds, including BlackBerry devices. Eliminating the government's paper overload might be the most common reason for using wireless technology, but new projects have a variety of goals, such as enabling couriers to make deliveries more quickly. Wireless seems poised for continued growth in government, assuming that concerns about finding qualified developers and making applications secure can be overcome.

Government applications are clearly different from private-sector applications because the public sector uses so much more paper than other user groups, so devices such as handhelds and laptops that are connected wirelessly can provide a real benefit, notes Carl Zetie, an analyst at Forrester.

At the Pennsylvania State Senate in Harrisburg, drafts of bills and legal documents are now wirelessly transmitted to legislators via e-mail. Deborah Maguire, director of computer services for the Democratic caucus, recently deployed a new version of Novell's GroupWise software to 20 wirelessly equipped BlackBerry 7520s from Research In Motion. "It's amazing that you never have to go back to the office ever," says Maguire, who also uses the technology. Wireless access to full bill texts is next, she says.

Joint Forces system passes security challenge
The public sector also deals with critical military, intelligence and public-safety applications. "That makes government very different from anybody else, because the systems need to be completely reliable, secure, rugged and simple to operate under extreme circumstances," Zetie says.

For example, security was a huge concern at the US Joint Forces Command in Suffolk, Virginia. Its wireless deployment provides nearly 400 users with secure Wi-Fi access from laptops and tablet computers over systems built entirely from commercially available products, says Tony Cerri, a civilian who serves as director of engineering.

Derek Krein, a security and wireless engineer at Professional Software Engineering Inc. in Virginia Beach, serves as lead contractor on the command's project. He says all wireless network users are isolated from the wired networks because they use a separate 2 Gbit/s. backbone. Walls were erected with metal wallpaper to prevent wireless eavesdropping, and a combination of Layer 2 encryption and wireless gateway passwords keeps the system secure, Krein says.

"I'm much more comfortable on the wireless network than the wired one," says Cerri. The system has been so effective for almost a year that Cerri says he would like to see wireless LANs deployed in more commands and even near combat areas.

"A lot of people in [the Department of Defense] think wireless is still insecure, but I can't imagine DOD preferring wired networks four years from now," he says. "Why set up a wired field-command post when you can set up a wireless one in half the time? We think it's here today."

Some of the standard products used at the command are a round-the-clock wireless monitoring system from AirDefense, and the AirWave Management Platform from AirWave, providing automated deployment and management of more than 78 access points, Krein says.

Asset tracking in Utah
Bob Egan, an analyst at Mobile Competency in North Providence, Rhode Islans, says the military is ahead of private industry with uses of wireless technology for asset and inventory management.

At Hill Air Force Base in Utah, for example, an in-house application for tracking aircraft parts and other material has been recently extended to both Wi-Fi and wireless cellular networks. That makes it easier for trucks to speed up deliveries to dozens of hangar bays where F-16 and A-10 aircraft are maintained, says Matt Martin, a civilian technical lead for Hill's IT modernization branch.

Drivers carry wireless handheld devices, such as the Audiovox 6601, equipped with bar code scanners. An inventory list received on the device tells drivers the pallet of parts to scan in, Martin says. A Wi-Fi network serves the driver's device in many locations, but because the base is so large, drivers often wander off the WLAN. In that case, they receive information over a Sprint cellular network. The devices are equipped to handle both networks, and roaming is relatively seamless, with only a millisecond of delay when crossing a network boundary, says Jerrod Pullum, a program manager at London-based Icon Consulting who also works on the project.

The delivery system supports dual wireless network mode capability, similar to what United Parcel Service (UPS) and other delivery companies offer over their own proprietary systems. However, Hill's system works with commercially available gear, Martin says. IBM's WebSphere software makes the connections possible.

"This gives information into a driver's hand so they can make more decisions in a day and not have to wait," Pullum says. Martin says Hill Air Force Base's project has served as a pilot for a system that is expected to be adopted at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Radio frequency identification might be deployed in a year at Hill, he says.

Despite the advances, challenges remain. They include providing setup and maintenance of complex systems and finding trained personnel to do the work, Egan says. "Mobile solutions are still very complicated," he notes.

Future issue: interoperability
Another thorny issue for public safety and homeland security is how to get emergency personnel to use more interoperable wireless devices and networks, adds Zetie. During a major catastrophe, emergency personnel from different jurisdictions may use radios that don't talk to one another, he says. Firefighters and police officers might have saved more people on Sept. 11, 2001, he says, had more of them been trained to use new equipment capable of interoperating between some networks. "A clear weakness is independent jurisdictions not working together, which is hard to fix in the U.S. and something deeply entrenched in the culture," Zetie says. "The answer will come through collaboration."