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Uncle Sam Slow On Wireless Uptake

To those of us installing, supporting and using wireless networks, it often seems like the whole world is going wireless in a big way. We see mobile applications changing lifestyles and culture, an endless pipeline of new wireless devices and even exotic new machine-to-machine applications enabled by pervasive signals.But, despite the wireless revolution at hand, there is one major sector that is not so quick to cut the cord. The U.S. government is a laggard when it comes to adopting and leveraging wireless technologies, which is a bit of a dichotomy given the many high-profile wireless-centric initiatives currently championed by Uncle Sam.

I recently caught up with Rich Tkac, VP and and executive director of design and implementation with American Systems. Tkac has been in the IT world for more than 30 years, with most of his time spent in direct support of government agencies. American Systems is a big, multifaceted IT shop with lots of dealings with the Fed.

I have to admit that when I was preparing to speak with Tkac, I had visions of conversing in hushed tones, talking about lots of cool stuff ("off the record") going on with cutting-edge wireless deployments. As a former government employee myself, I guess I should have known that the reality is seldom that exciting when it comes to the biggest bureaucracy in the world. Though our talk was not exactly the stuff of high drama, it was also far from boring to get an insider's take on the government's hesitancy to embrace wireless.

From past experience with other integrators, I know that the military has some pretty impressive wireless initiatives at play, both on the battlefield and across its many installations. Regarding the military aside, I probed Tkac for what's driving federal agencies either to, or away from, wireless networking. I also asked what regulations and directives shape government solutions, which agencies are out in front for wireless adoption and what the future might look like for wireless networking for the government in general.

Tkac was quick to point out that there are a lot of individual agencies within the federal government and not a lot of uniform guidance on how each one implements and manages its IT infrastructure. Separate budgets and different chains of command certainly result in differing IT environments. At the same time, there are only so many wireless protocols, and the government has to play well with the likes of TCP/IP, Ethernet and 802.11 if it's to interact with the outside world. But things often change at a glacial pace at the federal level, and this culture is part of the reason we don't see a lot of wireless networking in government offices.

Tkac feels that some of the resistance to change is generational, both in the age of many mangers and the understanding of technology. Many older managers simply don't get the value of wireless networking from the productivity standpoint, and there are still widespread misconceptions about wireless network security. To boot, many federal workplaces are pretty static--the existing infrastructure is bought and paid for, and users aren't necessarily mobile or even portable within the work spaces.

As for guiding directives and leadership on "doing" wireless, the Department of Defense (DoD), not surprisingly, tends to be out in front for specifying solutions and policy. The Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) series of regulations is never far away from any IT project within the government framework, but even then there are multiple levels of compliance to be understood and implemented.

Each agency also tends to write its own requirements, and Tkac explains that, often, no one solution can end up meeting all requirements the way they are frequently written. Where wireless does get used, you may have one vendor providing access and another (or multiple others) providing intrusion prevention and detection or proprietary encryption. Cisco does seem to have the deepest penetration into the limited government wireless space, by Tkac's estimation.

Looking forward, Tkac sees a slow boil of pent-up demand eventually coming to a head. Younger staffers and a more tech-savvy workforce will eventually make the case for more wireless, both for convenience and productivity. Uncle Sam will not be able to turn his back when someone comes up with apps that streamline or improve government functions, and when it comes time to replace aging on-premise wiring and workstations, a smart director somewhere will make the case for secure wireless as a cost-saver and set precedent.

Tkac also points out that the General Services Administration (GSA) manages thousands of properties used by federal agencies. If this agency catches on to wireless, it would probably be the tipping point for making wireless an accepted IT strategy across the federal government. It does strike me as interesting that despite the government's general reluctance to embrace wireless, we see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other agencies in the thick of promoting the likes of the current White Spaces adventure and the National Broadband Plan, both of which rely on and promote the use of wireless conenctivity on a large scale.