VA will allow iPhones and iPads to connect to its network this fall

The department will not require the use of federal wireless encryption standards.

Responding to demand from health care personnel who work in its 152 hospitals, the Veterans Affairs Department will open its network to access by popular Apple iPhones and iPads this October, Roger Baker, VA chief information officer, said at a media briefing Monday.

Mobile gadgets have become so popular, Baker said, that eventually the department may allow employees to choose between VA-provided mobile devices or laptops. Initially, Baker said, he will allow employees to connect their own iPhones or iPads to the network, with an acquisition to follow.

If employees opt for an iPhone or an iPad instead of a laptop, it could mean considerable savings for VA, because mobile devices are much less expensive than laptops, Baker said. As mobile computing continues to spread within VA, Baker came close to predicting the demise of the desktop computer in the department.

VA eventually will allow data phones from other manufacturers to access its network, Baker said, but he did not provide a timeline.

The agency also will soon allow its employees to access and use commercial cloud computing applications, Baker said.

VA employs more than 200,000 health care personnel, including 17,000 doctors, and Baker said they increasingly want to use mobile computing to access VA networks. At first, Baker said, these personnel will be able to use their iPhones and iPads to access email as well as a mobile version of VA's Computerized Patient Record System, part of the department's Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture electronic health record system, Baker said.

While most federal agencies require wireless communications be encrypted with software that complies with the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 ( FIPS 140-2), Baker said he will not require the use of that standard.

Apple offers a suite of software from a number of vendors to securely connect its products to an enterprise network under a program called Mobile Device Management, and Baker said he will "accept the risk . . . that the [software] is sufficiently strong."

He explained that information technology management is a "pragmatic science" and that if he just said no to the use of iPhones and iPads on the VA network while waiting for Apple to deliver FIPS 140-2 products, end users would figure out how to do an end run around him.

Pragmatism also served as the catalyst behind the decision to allow VA employees to access applications provided by commercial cloud computing vendors, Baker said.

Last December, VA discovered four orthopedic residents at its Chicago hospital had used a online calendar that contained information on more than 1,000 patients. At the same time, Baker said the department discovered that eight other hospitals used Google Docs -- which features online spreadsheets, word processing programs and presentation software -- to store patient information.

VA now will allow access to applications that it has had the time to develop, while at the same time overseeing their use, Baker said. He declined to identify the first cloud application service provider.

Baker expects clinicians to use short-range (150 feet to 300 feet) Wi-Fi technology to access its networks, but said VA needs to improve its own onsite Wi-Fi to provide 100 percent coverage. In 2008, the VA awarded Catapult Technology Ltd. a $91.4 million contract to upgrade its hospital and clinic Wi-Fi networks.

He told a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in May that the department underestimated the amount of concrete in its hospitals, which blocked Wi-Fi signals. VA would have to install more access points than envisioned in the original Catapult contract and planned a follow-on contract.