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Wireless Opportunities Are Being Missed

April 2008
By Kent R. Schneider

Wireless connectivity is everywhere and is becoming a more important part of our personal and professional lives.

In the personal domain, Wi-Fi and WiMAX coverage has grown dramatically, and the number of devices to use this wideband coverage has grown even faster. Third-generation (3G) and fourth-generation (4G) cellular technologies have become even more pervasive, and the functionality of new cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) is truly impressive, empowering road warriors like never before.

The impact on our professional lives is even more profound. Wireless has fundamentally changed the way we do business. Rare is the official in government or industry who is not constantly accompanied by his or her BlackBerry or a similar device. “Power to the edge” is the war cry, extending core networks everywhere we need to be—in our communities, while traveling and even on the battlefield. Voice, data and, increasingly, even video are available through the smallest handheld devices. Classified versions are available. Some devices now are emerging that can access both unclassified and classified networks from a single PDA or laptop computer.

With all of this progress, industry continues to push to make the wireless environments more robust and more useful. Bandwidth is increasing, functionality is growing, security is improving and standards are converging. So, with all this progress, and more to come, why are we even talking about wireless anymore? Why are we not moving on to the next challenge? The reason is that policy and budget constraints have kept these solutions from some members of the national security community that need them most.

Members of our military are doing some amazing things in combat theaters by gathering and sharing critically needed information on PDAs—ones that they have purchased themselves. This introduces the question of whether it is appropriate for military personnel to have to spend their own money on capabilities they need to do their job. It also raises questions about security, consistency and interoperability.

Why has it come to this? Long acquisition processes have focused on bringing better satellite communications, along with programmable and frequency agile radios to our force structure. These are critically needed. Similarly, mobile, secure and survivable wide and local area networks and cellular networks have added to theater inventories, although they often lag commercial offerings. Inconsistent and incomplete policy, along with a lack of budget attention, have limited investment in commercially available products and services that would have put advanced capabilities in the hands of our military.

The problem is not restricted to our military. Key players in the homeland security arena at the federal, state and local levels are in even more dire straits. The homeland security infrastructure is less mature because of its relatively short lifespan; it has more decision makers in its domain; and its budgets tend to be sparser. In addition to the lack of capability in the homeland security community, the number of agencies involved and the fact that many of these are not under the direct control of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) makes interoperability in this community a huge problem. The DHS consists of 22 subordinate agencies that were consolidated only five years ago, and many more participate at the federal level. Add the thousands of agencies and first-responder organizations at the state and local levels, and you have a significant challenge.

At a recent AFCEA event, WashingtonD.C., Metropolitan Chief of Police Cathy Lanier pointed out that advanced wireless tools for her force are extremely limited because of budget constraints. Voice radio continues to be the police force’s primary mobile tool, and the force continues to prepare crime reports on paper. She hopes to fix that soon, she declared. Laptops now are becoming available in police vehicles. Only senior police supervisors have PDAs. Given the homeland security role of this police force that supports our federal seat of government, all of this should give us pause.

Just last year, New York City began developing the first secure wideband wireless system devoted to first responders. A tremendous step forward, this system remains in development across the five boroughs. Beyond voice radio systems, most cities and towns use commercial cellular systems—to the extent that they have any—which will compete with private users in the case of an emergency. Federal authorities can bring only limited capability to the scene of a local emergency to permit communications among the disparate federal agencies and the state and local first responders so critical to public safety.

Industry can and will continue to improve the availability and functionality of wireless systems. Government needs to work to put a comprehensive and consistent body of policy in place to support the national security community. Governments at every level then need to give the appropriate priority to funding compliance with that policy.