What's Brewin: Baby Steps

The Army appears to have started a process that could lead to widespread use of wireless technologies for its classified networks.

Because of security concerns, the Defense Department has taken a more cautious approach to the well-established Wi-Fi technology and its younger cousin, WiMax wireless systems, than the approach taken by home and commercial users. But the Army now looks like it has started a process that could lead to widespread use of both wireless technologies for its classified networks.

The Army's Project Manager, Network Service Center at Fort Monmouth, N.J., views wireless data systems as an easy way to extend networks found in its 158 installations worldwide to buildings and facilities that are not connected to a hard-wired backbone. The Army spelled out its intention in a request for information for a secure Internet protocol router network wireless solution. The RFI closed on Jan. 21 and attracted 26 responses.

Bob Golden, who runs the center, told me that the Army needs a secret wireless network to support troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who may end up working in buildings, facilities or installations that do not have a wired secret network. Golden said it would take less time to install a wireless system than digging trenches and pulling cable -- and potentially could be more cost effective, too.

Richard Rzepkowski, vice president of Communications Security Products, a division of Harris Corp., told me that this could end up being a very big deal, considering the possible scope of the job. He declined to offer any specifics on how big in dollars. I understand. Why provide info to the competition in this column?

Based on his reading of the RFI, Rzepkowski said the Army would probably need a secure military version of WiMax (for long-range connections), as well as a secure Wi-Fi system (for short-range connections) to meet its requirements. That's because one of the RFI requirements calls for a range of 15 miles, a distance WiMax can handle easily, but a challenge for Wi-Fi, which has a range of 100 to 500 feet, Rzepkowski said. Directional antennas can boost the range of vanilla Wi-Fi dramatically, for example to, say, a 72-mile shot from San Diego to San Clemente Island, which I wrote about a few years back in another life.

Rzepkowski thinks that a combination of Wi-Fi for in-building coverage and a military version of WiMax for long-distance hops from the wired network will meet the Army's needs. Whatever gizmos the service uses will have to meet the National Security Agency's type I encryption standard to manage secret traffic. Rzepkowski said only Harris has the wireless gadgets that meet this requirement, though he anticipates competition in the future.

Golden said he needs a system that is type I certified.

I see Telos Corp., which uses Harris gear for a similar Air Force base wireless project, as another likely bidder for the Army job.

What's a 'Transformational' Satellite Terminal?

I live in northeast New Mexico, near Santa Fe's granola eaters, crystal gazers and New Age shamans. So when I told my wife, Deborah, that I was writing about transformational satellite terminals, she wanted to know if they were designed to -- literally -- transform the end user.

There's nothing remotely Santa Fe about the RFI the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio issued last week for transformational communications. But it does point out a pressing need for small, affordable satellite antennas that can receive signals from satellites transmitting in the military X-band as well a the commercial Ka-band -- frequencies used today by the Wideband Global SATCOM system and planned for a next-generation Transformational Communications Satellite (TSAT).

So, if you have a good idea about how to develop and manufacture a mobile satellite terminal that's slightly smaller than Aretha Franklin's inaugural hat, please let AFRL know by Feb 20.

Save Trees, Respond Digitally to FOIAs

That's the essence of a phrase buried deep down in President Barack Obama's memo to agencies that calls for a new openness in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the public.

The memo says all federal agencies should "adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure" and then adds: "The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their government." (Emphasis added.)

Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University, a nonprofit that files and litigates FOIA requests better than any outfit in Washington, said he believes the technology phrase is a call by the tech-savvy Obama administration for agencies to use the Web, including social network sites, to push out FOIA information to the public.

Blanton said a good model for this is how NASA managed the mountain of FOIA requests it received following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. NASA decided to handle the requests by putting up every piece of information it had on the investigation on the Web.

Blanton suggested that anyone filling a FOIA from now on invoke the Obama memo, which I intend to do when I start filing requests for the thousands of task orders on the megabillion-dollar Defense Information Systems Agency Encore I and Encore II contracts. DISA dropped a blanket over those task orders three years ago because, theoretically, some contained "sensitive" information.

But, as Obama said, "A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency," a phrase I believe applies to DISA task order contracts.

Always good to mention DISA in this column.

Help Jump-Start Combat Vets

My pal Ed Meagher, former Veterans Affairs Department deputy chief information officer and now director of strategy for health affairs at SRA International, and some of his friends are running Operation Jump-Start to help combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq to transition to civilian life. He would like the help of folks out in What's Land.

The Operation Jump-Start dinner is on Jan. 27 at the Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., from 1730 to 2030. You can register here. Price of admission is a donation to help combat vets as they transition to civilian life, and cash (or a check) is a good way to help. The Jump-Start fund also supports soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and their families, Ed told me.

Honorary chairs of the Jump-Start event are Lisa Schlosser, former Housing and Urban Development Department CIO who now runs the Office of Information Collection at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rob Carey, Navy CIO. Schlosser served in Iraq as an Army reservist, while Carey did a tour as a Navy reservist in Iraq.

The event tomorrow will not only serve as a way to help vets, but it also will be a good opportunity to schmooze. Sponsors include the Chief Information Officers Council, the Technology Association of America and my old employer, Federal Computer Week. (Yes, I know FCW is now 1105 Government Information Group, but I still have a hard time with the new name.)

See you there.