Wireless Systems Slow to Take Hold

nferris@govexec.com

The Army's tactical radio system worked well enough when troops were deployed to keep peace in Bosnia, but it took a signal brigade of more than 1,100 soldiers-plus one in every 13 combat soldiers-to set up, operate and protect the communications system, according to a 1996 assessment published by the National Defense University.

"Compare this tooth-to-tail ratio with the AT&T satellite phone system operated in U.S. base camps by roughly 24 company employees," wrote retired Army officer Kenneth Allard, author of the study. "Although the military communications system features free morale calls-most U.S. soldiers phone home with AT&T prepaid credit cards-expense was outweighed by clarity and convenience." Allard went on to quote one U.S. brigade commander who said, "The former warring factions have better communications, because they have cellular phones and I don't."

Wireless communications have been slow to become commonplace in the federal government, for several reasons. One person who has studied the situation closely says there's been concern that government employees would look as if they were wasting taxpayers' money if they carried cellular phones. Another says the reliability isn't quite there. A third says it's just too expensive.

Bulk government acquisition of wireless services was supposed to occur several years ago, under the auspices of the Defense Information Systems Agency. Instead, after some false starts, the program became part of the Federal Telecommunications Service offerings. FTS awarded a non-mandatory contract to GTE Government Systems last November, but even after that there was little activity. Asked about the contract in April, GTE's program director, G. Jay Nelson, described it as "in a start-up mode."

Nelson was trying to turn that situation around by negotiating contract modifications that would smooth the way for more buying. Most notably, GTE was seeking to change the billing arrangements so that bills could go to users' offices, rather than to their agencies through the General Services Administration. Nelson was optimistic that the change would be place by press time.

Even then, he said, the contract is not suitable for every agency. "A lot of people think this is wireless services for everyone in the federal government," but instead it's really aimed at agencies wanting to establish a nationwide program with central management, Nelson said. Although GTE's Federal Wireless prices run 40 percent to 60 percent lower than commercial pricing, he said, an individual who shops around may find better prices, especially if the customer doesn't plan to use the service heavily.

It's tough to shop for cellular services, because vendors often often aren't making comparable offers. For example, Nelson noted that many commercial cellular providers include a "free" telephone for new customers. His federal program does not.

The pricing variables are so complex that GTE provides potential federal customers with comparative price analyses on request, within a few hours. The service can be requested by calling (888) FEDWIRE.

Under the $300 million, eight-year contract, GTE has teamed up with 54 companies to blanket the United States and its territories. Besides conventional cellular voice service, the company is providing wireless data services for mobile computer users, including fax users. At press time, GTE was planning to add Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) service, a fast packet service that's ideal for mobile electronic mail and database updates. "We think wireless e-mail access is going to skyrocket," Nelson said.

Nelson is generally optimistic about the future of wireless communications, noting that several federal agencies were "stacked up in a holding pattern" while the direct-billing contract modification was being worked out.

The Air Force and the IRS are two of the agencies where interest was high, he said. IRS field auditors could use the wireless service to tap into taxpayer records on the road.

On the other hand, the U.S. Postal Service early this year abandoned its procurement of wireless services, reportedly because the program would be too expensive. USPS had envisioned setting up a package tracking system with wireless terminals carried by delivery employees.

Law enforcement is one of the most popular areas for applying wireless technology, and a nationwide wireless public safety network is on the agenda of the National Performance Review. President Clinton is expected to issue an executive order directing all agencies involved in public safety to participate in the initiative. The issues that must be resolved include intergovernmental coordination, allocation of the radio frequency spectrum, technical standards and, of course, paying for the new system.

Meanwhile, commercial suppliers are getting ready to offer a new array of voice and data services. Transmission technologies are being deployed, particularly satellite services that don't rely entirely on cellular technology.

Next year, for example, an international consortium will launch the Iridium service of worldwide wireless voice, data, paging and fax communications. When a customer activates the special Iridium telephones, the call will go either to a local cellular system or directly to a network of 66 low-earth orbit satellites blanketing the earth. The satellite system will deliver the call to a land-based network such as a phone system.

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