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Fed offices struggle to offer Wi-Fi

Feb. 3, 2013 - 11:16AM   |  
Smartphones and tablets are proliferating in federal workplaces. Only one problem: Getting a Wi-Fi connection is almost impossible at many federal office buildings.
Smartphones and tablets are proliferating in federal workplaces. Only one problem: Getting a Wi-Fi connection is almost impossible at many federal office buildings. (AFP / Getty Images)

Smartphones and tablets are proliferating in federal workplaces. Only one problem: Getting a Wi-Fi connection is almost impossible at many federal office buildings.

It is a particular challenge at the world’s biggest office building: the Pentagon.

“The younger folks truly do believe that it’s an entitlement,” said Tom Sasala, chief technology officer for the Army Information Technology Agency, which provides information technology services for the Pentagon and other federal installations in the Washington region.

“Not only are they moderately aggravated that there’s no Wi-Fi in the building, they’re even more aggravated that they can’t get a cellular signal,” Sasala said of Wi-Fi services in and around the Pentagon.

Although many agencies today use wireless services to increase mobility, access to Wi-Fi varies by office and agency. In some cases, stringent policies governing Wi-Fi use have made it virtually impossible for employees to enjoy it. Other key challenges include security and funding concerns.

Agencies spend roughly $1.2 billion annually for mobile and wireless services and devices. But they still have a long way to go in rolling out Wi-Fi connectivity in countless federal hallways, meeting rooms and common areas across the country.

“As people want to have the same experience that they have at home in the office, for the Department of Defense that is a bit of a challenge,” Sasala said at an industry conference last month. “We cannot adequately, at this moment, stay ahead of the game. We have trouble even trying to catch up at times.”

The Education Department’s David Harrity says this is a concern at his department as well.

“From a real estate perspective, we’ve got to go beyond the boundaries of just that cubicle and go into the hallway,” said Harrity, Education’s branch chief for network services. “Employees want to be functional while they’re walking to the next meeting or in the meeting.”

“We usually just stop [providing employees with Internet access] right at the desktop, and that doesn’t fly anymore,” Harrity said.

Experts say Wi-Fi coverage at federal workplaces will inevitably expand to accommodate the desires of younger employees, who expect wireless connectivity, flexible work hours and newer technology. Contractors and visitors to federal facilities also expect such coverage.

Investing in wireless coverage, in many cases, can be cheaper than installing cables and other connections that desktop computers and other wired technologies require at every workstation, said Stephen Orr, a systems engineer for Cisco’s public sector.

The Army Information Technology Agency recently completed a nine-month project to roll out Wi-Fi in a handful of common areas in the Pentagon, including the food court. The catch: Wi-Fi users must have a government laptop and a Common Access Card and jump through other hurdles to log onto the network. As a result, Wi-Fi use rates are low.

Even the cellular signal in the Pentagon is weak, at best, said Sasala, whose smartphone is virtually useless in his underground office.

In an emergency, a lack of cell phone coverage becomes a life-safety issue, he said.

Sasala’s agency has requested that the Pentagon convert to commercial Wi-Fi, where both visitors and contractors can benefit from the services. The model would operate similarly to Starbucks, or third-party services offered at conference centers or airports. Users would agree to the terms of use and pay a fee for the Wi-Fi service.

For companies like Verizon, there is no revenue or business case, said Bernie McMonagle, director of federal government data solutions at Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

Vendors would essentially set up Wi-Fi services, free of charge to the Pentagon, and recoup that investment through user fees. McMonagle said the company would consider building more cell towers near the Pentagon or standing up antennas in the building to extend the cellular network.

The size and age of the Pentagon is another burden. It’s 6.5 million square feet with 17.5 miles of corridors.

There are some highly secretive offices within the Pentagon where the lack of Wi-Fi and cellular services are welcomed. But for all other areas, Sasala said security concerns need not prevent the Pentagon from considering Wi-Fi where risks are not as high.

At the Veterans Affairs Department, difficulty accessing updated building floor plans is one of the hurdles to expanding Wi-Fi, said Rick Lantz, systems implementation manager at VA.

“Sometimes, if it’s a [General Services Administration] building, then we have to go through the GSA contacts to get the floor plans,” Lantz said. The average VA building is 50 years old, and the floor plans for some older buildings are not adequate.

The concern is that wireless technology could, for example, interfere with security cameras or cause other maintenance and facilities issues.

The other challenge is striking a balance between wireless services for employees and those visiting federal facilities, such as veterans waiting for care in VA hospital lobbies.

“Many of the vets may go to a commercial hospital and they have Wi-Fi,” Lantz said.

VA is also using wireless technology to track the location of its medical assets, which has already saved more than $1 million.

Larry Melton, with GSA, said his agency will rely heavily on wireless when employees move into GSA’s partially renovated headquarters building.

“People aren’t sitting in offices every day all day long,” Melton said. The average federal workspace is used about 38 percent of the time, he said, based on a survey of a small group of GSA employees. Employees may be traveling, sitting in meetings or elsewhere.

Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said employees at his Maryland office benefit greatly from having Wi-Fi. He’s able to access data during meetings and provide immediate answers to questions.

“I have become accustomed to having it,” he said of the Wi-Fi service.

The cellular data signal is hit-or-miss in the building, so employees cannot rely on it, said Rosencrans, who spends half of his workday in meeting rooms and collaborative workspaces.

Providing services like Wi-Fi is in some ways a recruitment tool, Education’s Harrity said. But employees should expect certain security limitations. Harrity said his department is gradually rolling out Wi-Fi services at one of its Washington facilities.

As agencies cut back on travel, Harrity said having wireless and webcasting capabilities in his building will save on the cost of having to rent out hotels or other facilities to hold small conferences.

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