Mainly mobile

Mobile computing promises to do what the Internet did a decade ago: liberate, empower, transform. The proliferation of wireless connections to the network broadband backbones that lie beneath the urban landscape is providing unbridled access to information, without hard connections to the Internet. Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) hotspots dot the cores of many cities across North America, in public places like coffee shops. According to JiWire, there are almost 1,100 hotspots in Canada, And wireless access is not only within the reach of city dwellers: More and more country cousins are beginning to enjoy wireless connectivity through rural cooperatives and public-private partnerships….mobile computing is becoming gradually more sophisticated – much more than just another E-mail device.Text What does it mean for government? The major impetus for local government involvement in infrastructure investment has been to nurture social and economic development via convenient access to broadband Internet networks. Government organizations around the world have recognized the benefits of wireless local area networks (WLANs) as a means of providing relatively cheap access to the Internet to both external and internal users. Through public-private partnerships, governments and businesses have been setting up Wi-Fi stations throughout communities, for the benefit of citizens, businesses and workers.

Meanwhile, government employees, like business people, are big consumers of mobile computing devices. Essentially, mobile devices such as Tablet PCs, PDAs and other mobile devices have enabled government employees to stay in touch with their colleagues and staff via e-mail well beyond the standard workday. Not only are these units convenient, they also improve productivity, particularly in the elimination of employee downtime and separation from r-mail.

Beyond that, mobile computing is becoming gradually more sophisticated – much more than just another E-mail device. Many government organizations have been developing applications for their mobile devices so that employees can connect with office networks. Building inspectors, water meter readers and parking enforcement officers are just a few of the frontline employees who have been piloting and using remote devices over the past few years in the municipal context. The convergence of telephony and computing technologies is moving quickly as from-the-hip devices become more and more powerful.

Given that governments are proving to be such heavy users of wireless devices, IM/IT managers can usefully consider the following before allowing their organizations to get any deeper into mobile computing.

1. Cost of info-/infra-structure.

Many communities have learned that WiFi networks can be inexpensive, particularly where a fibre optic network backbone has already been developed. At the organizational level, government departments are taking advantage of WiFi and Bluetooth™ wireless standards to un-tether computer peripheral components. While wireless networks are also much cheaper to implement than traditional networks, IM/IT managers need to weigh the costs of these networking enhancements before opting for a specific mobile computing solution.

2. So many options, so few standards.

While certain products have become the effective standard in many government organizations, there are no definitive standards for wireless connectivity. A single organization may find itself supporting a variety of different devices including tablet PCs, Pocket PCs, PDAs, Blackberries, text messaging-enabled cell phones, and laptops. These various devices provide different levels of functionality and operate under very different environments and standards.

Many popular wireless devices, such as cell phones and Blackberries among others, operate over cellular networks with data transfer rates most suitable for sending and retrieving e-mail or querying databases. With the increasing availability of wireless hotspots, however, WiFi-equipped devices such as laptops and various PDAs enable users to operate in much faster environments. With the convergence of various wireless technologies, the main business requirements of the user – voice, e-mail and computing – can be met through a single device. PDAs have been equipped with cell phones for some time and voice-over WiFi (VoWiFi) handsets have been in use within controlled environments.

3. True cost of ownership.

The true cost of productivity tools is difficult to establish and often misunderstood. Mobile computing includes many costing components such as the cost of the device, maintenance and support (both on site and in the field), network charges and carrier charges, among others. Moreover, in budgeting for a mobile workforce, IT managers must factor in the cost of ever-greening technology with much shorter life spans than desktop computers. This cost of ownership is often complicated by the fact that in many government organizations, wireless access including airtime is captured within individual employee plans. Without realizing opportunities for sharing airtime across an organization, the cost of ownership is likely much higher than it needs to be. This problem is becoming more complicated as more PDAs are equipped with cell phones.

4. Security and privacy.

Secured access to corporate networks will require high encryption VPN access controls. This calls for a management policy that takes into account the varying levels of authorization. Users accessing internal networks will include people accessing their e-mail via web mail, people accessing electronic document and records management systems, and various types of systems administrators. Each will necessarily have to follow security guidelines with respect to their mobile computing devices.

IT managers should also carefully examine security policies that pertain to the protection of corporate systems from within, particularly with respect to wireless networks. The mass issuing of laptop computers poses a serious threat to WLANs. Each unit contains an antenna to allow access to the network. However, these antennae are also entry points for hackers. Managing the security of WLANs depend not only on the physical network, but also on the many wireless devices legitimately accessing the system.

5. Personal effects.

Which is a worse scenario: An internal network that has a minor vulnerability risk of outside attack, or a mobile worker who loses his PDA? The shift from traditional to high tech road warrior requires awareness, training, and new safeguards. These frontline workers need to be trained in how to identify and reduce security and privacy protection risks while on the road. Moreover, security, privacy, and support issues also arise out of the temptation of many workers who may want to use their own electronic toys on the job. Strict policy and access controls should be developed and implemented to restrict the use of unsupported devices.

6. Business Processes.

Uniform business processes are an important consideration for all government organizations that are considering mobile computing solutions. Even in the case of organizations that have always had employees on the road, the transition from a remote to mobile wireless computing environment requires major re-engineering of business processes.

7. Managing productivity. The business world affords many examples of how a mobile workforce is much more productive as a result of advancements in wireless technologies. Is this true with government as well? In many cases it probably is; however, managers need to set boundaries around who should be provided with mobile capabilities. It starts with understanding the workforce. Consider the following types of mobile employees.

• Mobile by necessity: These