Employees have come to expect wireless coverage just about anywhere they go and their business processes frequently depend on being able to connect. The current generation of mobile devices fully support mobility, but network coverage is not always adequate. IT departments are always seeking ways to improve the quality and availability of wireless services across large regions. There’s probably no wider range of responsibilities and the broad geographic area to cover, than that of the U.S. Coast Guard, so we spoke with Rear Admiral Robert Day, Jr. CIO, to understand how his organization is dealing with the challenges of planning wireless coverage and capacity.
Mobile Enterprise: Given all the different places the U.S. Coast Guard covers, how do you manage all the possible scenarios for wireless coverage?
Robert Day: The majority of Coast Guard personnel operate in the 50 states, but there are also worldwide deployments. Given this broad range of locations, we have to leverage numerous wireless providers to address their needs. Most of our wireless services are obtained by regional Coast Guard entities rather than through one national centralized procurement vehicle.
We have rules as to how they go about ordering services. Coast Guard policies have been established to provide guidance on who is authorized to use equipment, types of services to obtain, and especially configurations and security policies if the wireless device is going to be used to access Coast Guard email capabilities.
ME Independently of how you procure network services, how do you plan support for data and voice communications in the field?
RD Just as we have the procurement carried out regionally by Coast Guard units, we do the same for support. We have evaluated several resellers and aggregators to try to establish a centralized provisioning source which would help standardize services, provide better configuration management, improve overall costs visibility, and potentially reduce overall costs.
But we have not been able to find one source that is capable of providing reliable services in all of the areas where we operate, which as you know, is anything from a large metropolitan area to extremely rural coastal areas, and even remote places, such as Alaska.
For email we do have a way of providing centralized support. We use a centralized provisioning capability to install and enable the Goodlink mobile messaging capability on our iOS and Android devices.
ME How do you ensure security when you use a public wireless network?
RD We use VPN and encrypted tunnels when using these sources to access enterprise data.
ME When coverage is mission critical, do you trust public networks for reliable service or have a plan B?
RD We have a Plan B, which is to leverage contingency capabilities available from many of the major providers — for example, cells on wheels (COW’s) — as well as some portable capabilities held by several Federal agencies. Wireless service has proven to be very resilient during many of the contingencies that we have dealt with in the recent past. The Coast Guard uses the Federal Wireless Access Priority (WAP) service to help ensure priority access to wireless services during major responses.
ME Does Wi-Fi play a role in wireless data coverage in the field?
RD We do not. From a security standpoint we have directed our smartphone, tablet and laptop users not to use Wi-Fi from non-trusted sources. We have encouraged users to procure and leverage MiFi capabilities instead of using their phone as Wi-Fi hotspot because of the significant rise in mobile device spyware.
ME How are you able to enforce this Wi-Fi policy?
RD We are working on leveraging mobile device management (MDM) to develop the capability to allow use of appropriately secured wireless access points. But we are not there yet, and are relying on our personnel to adhere to policy guidelines including avoiding public open wireless access points and ensuring home wireless systems are configured with appropriate security - for example, WEP. Education is key.
ME Do you have different usage plans based on different roles?
RD With a non-centralized provisioning methodology and very little oversight, it has been something like the wild west, where anything goes. But because of the rapid expansion in wireless device usage, and the corresponding increase in resource consumption, this is an area we’re working on.
We are developing new policies to cover all IT provisioning, including wireless, to standardize exactly the IT services provided to each type of worker. The goal is to establish standards such that a Marine Inspector in Portland, OR gets exactly the same IT suite as the Marine Inspector in Portland, ME.
ME If you could wave a magic wand and change the plans offered by operators, how would you change them?
RD I would prefer to have an aggregated corporate plan that would allow me the flexibility to leverage an overall level of bandwidth and usage, with the ability to have visibility on usage per device, so we can monitor abuse. I would also like to be able to manage individual devices, so I can fit my IT provisioning by job function. For example, highly mobile workers and teleworkers would have unlimited bandwidth, whereas the occasional user would have a usage limitation.