What's Brewin: DISA Eyes 'Magic Bus'

Commuter transport could provide employees with Wi-Fi, just like what Google and Microsoft offer.

Jack Penkoske, director for manpower, personnel and security at the Defense Information Systems Agency, has responsibility for coordinating DISA's relocation to Fort Meade, Md., from Virginia. He's come up with a number of innovative ways to ease the pain of the move, which was mandated by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005.

DISA is considering providing vans to transport workers who don't want to uproot their families from Virginia; dedicated, nonstop buses from the Pentagon; shuttle buses from the MARC Commuter Rail station in Odenton, Md.; and sharing these services with tenants at Fort Meade, such as the National Security Agency.

Probably the most innovative twist in the transportation plan is deployment of what Penkoske (with credit to Pete Townshend and "The Who") has dubbed the "Magic Bus" -- a vehicle equipped with Wi-Fi so DISA commuters can surf the Net (or ostensibly to work) as they cruise to Fort Meade.

Penkoske told me that while deployment of a Magic Bus fleet is in the planning stage, "we are seriously looking at this and it will probably happen." If it does, DISA will follow in the path of leading technology companies such as Google and Microsoft, both of which ferry thousands of employees to and from work daily on a fleet of Wi-Fi-equipped buses.

Google has a wealth of employee perks -- including free haute cuisine, climbing walls, volleyball courts and lap pools -- but The New York Times reported the Wi-Fi commuter bus service was the biggest perk of all as it saves workers from daily traffic battles.

If DISA's objective is to ensure it does not lose intellectual capital in the move to Fort Meade -- as the agency's director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, told me last week -- the Magic Bus could go a long way to help meet that goal. Not to mention that every DISA employee Penkoske manages to lure onto a DISA Magic Bus will mean one less car on Washington's already snarled roads. About 14,000 Defense Department employees in the D.C. area are slated to move to Fort Meade and another 23,000 are scheduled to move to Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2011.

Off -the-Shelf Tech

Penkoske told me that DISA tech folks still are studying the gear needed to equip the DISA Magic Bus fleet. But it's a simple solution used globally in buses, commuter trains and even ferries. Bus riders are served by a Wi-Fi access point that feeds its signal to a high-speed cellular network such as the EDGE service offered by AT&T Wireless. That service has a throughput of about 200 kilobits per second. Another offering may be the EV-DO service provided by Verizon or Sprint, which has a throughput of 700 to 800 kbps.

Parvus Corp. offers a turn-key Wi-Fi/cellular package used on Salt Lake City commuter buses and D-Link sells a router packed with Wi-Fi and either Sprint or Verizon EV-DO technology. Or, maybe DISA would like to use the technology selected by Microsoft, a Linux-based (that's right, Linux) system, according to Softpedia.

Moving Digits, Not People, Saves Real Money

DISA has roughly 2,200 employees telecommuting out of a workforce that is just under 5,000. The savings from working at home three days a week rather than driving into the office, with gas at more than $4 a gallon, amounts to real money. Penkoske told me one DISA employee who teleworks estimates she saves $200 a month on her gas bill.

Telework is a high priority for 70 percent of the DISA employees slated to move to Fort Meade, he said. Employees say the No. 1 reason they'd prefer to telework is to avoid a commute, rather than reduce costs for gas.

Penkosketold me that productivity for remote workers in most cases equals their work productivity in the office and often exceeds it. Many DISA employees can do their jobs as easily at home as in a remote office, he said, citing the fact that the agency's civilian payroll is managed by two teleworkers.

Beefing Up Classified Telework

DISA currently has two sites that have secure network connections to support classified telework -- one in Annapolis, Md., and another in Wahiawa, Hawaii. The agency wants to increase the number of remote, classified sites to accommodate employees who need access to secure networks, Penkoske said.

He told me that DISA is working with the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management to set up secure remote sites that employees from multiple agencies use -- an idea that will look only better when it will take a second mortgage to buy gas.

I truly enjoyed my conversation with Penkoske, especially as I did it from my telework site at SOGO (small outdoor garden office) here in (the original) Las Vegas -- in New Mexico.