Mobile feds: We want our BlackBerries, too

President Barack Obama isn’t the only U.S. federal government employee who . Across the federal market, information workers are asking for mobile devices such as smart phones and laptops with wireless data cards so they can access e-mail and other Internet services while they are on the go.

President Barack Obama isn’t the only U.S. federal government employee who . Across the federal market, information workers are asking for mobile devices such as smart phones and laptops with wireless data cards so they can access e-mail and other Internet services while they are on the go.

Increasingly, federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Interior are responding with wireless data contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to carriers.

While sizeable, these centralized purchasing vehicles are designed to save agencies money compared to letting field offices buy their own cell phones and wireless data plans.

In addition, federal agencies are asking wireless carriers to help them monitor the security of their mobile devices and maintain centralized inventories, which until now have been spotty.

‘Agencies have been paying a lot for wireless services because they’re buying them in a highly decentralized way,” says Warren Suss, a Jenkintown, Pa. consultant specializing in the federal IT market. ‘Not only is that costing them a lot, but agencies are losing visibility and unable to keep track of their inventories. That’s why agencies are trying to aggregate their purchases of wireless devices.”

For example, AT&T announced Monday that it was a series of wireless voice and data contracts from FEMA that could be worth up to US$50 million over the next five years.

AT&T said it will deliver secure, reliable wireless data and voice communications to FEMA’s 6,600 employees, which are responsible for coordinating the federal government’s disaster response and recovery operations.

‘What you’re seeing here with the FEMA acquisition and those by other agencies is that they’re looking for the benefits of centralized purchasing and management of their wireless devices,” Suss said. ‘Agencies are getting the vendor community to do special things for them like have a single 800 number for a help line.”

AT&T will provide FEMA with its LaptopConnect wireless cards, BlackBerry 8820 smart phones and 3G LG CU405 units, which provide Push-to-Talk capabilities for first responders. AT&T will provide wireless connectivity on its Wi-Fi and EDGE wireless networks.

‘AT&T has a nationwide footprint, and FEMA needs to have that,” says Joe O’Bryan, a vice president with AT&T Government Solutions. ‘FEMA was looking for rapidity of response in a crisis, and we have the capacity to handle their demands.”

AT&T was awarded the FEMA contracts through a competitive bid on Dec. 17, but announced them Monday. AT&T already has set up a wireless Cell on Wheels (COW) system at FEMA’s headquarters in Mount Weather, Va.

‘We’re providing four bars of service all over that campus,” O’Bryan says. ‘That was just to demonstrate how fast AT&T could act for FEMA.”

AT&T’s FEMA win comes on the heels of a that the Department of the Interior awarded to Verizon Business last summer.

Verizon is helping Interior manage and track expenses for more than 22,000 mobile devices. The Verizon deal could be worth as much as $15 million over the next five years.

Verizon is providing expense-management services for mobile phones, personal digital assistants and other wireless devices used by the Department of Interior and its bureaus, which include the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Interior awarded the contract so it can figure out where all of its wireless devices were deployed and how much it was spending on wireless services.

Verizon will track devices from all different wireless providers, while providing around-the-clock help desk support to the agency’s employees. The subcontractor on the deal is , which provides telecom expense management services.

‘The Interior deal … was ahead of the rest of the government,” Suss said. ‘They did it right. They saved a lot of money, and they have better visibility and more management controls.”

Meanwhile, AT&T said it is providing wireless devices and services to the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service.

‘2008 was a very strong year for mobile applications,” said Rick Zambrano, vice president of Defense Department sales for AT&T Government Solutions, in a recent interview. ‘We know that the federal government is a mobile workforce, with 91% of federal employees having worked away from the headquarters office at one point or another. Tele-work has been a buzzword that’s been in the federal government for many years, but from a wireless perspective it’s becoming more of a reality.”

Zambrano said AT&T is providing around 4,000 wireless cards to the IRS that its inspectors use to access e-mail and internal Web pages through a secure virtual private network also operated by AT&T.

‘All of these Aircards were bought during 2008,” Zambrano said. ‘Now that IRS is getting used to this idea, they can see their productivity is going through the roof … Now they can think about other mobile applications like content distribution and video.”

AT&T also has , which is using them for e-mail as well as newer applications such as fleet management, Zambrano said.

‘Field force automation is a critical issue for federal agencies that are trying to do more with less,” Zambrano said. ‘The issue is how do you get your people to become more productive? How do you recruit and retain top talent? Wireless technology is a real hot button with young, talented workers.”

Suss predicts that more federal agencies will award large, centralized wireless deals in 2009.

‘The federal government is trying to use mobile devices in new areas like the Census to send data wirelessly and instantly back into the database, and for field inspectors with the Department of Agriculture,” Suss said. ‘These kinds of wireless technologies can help agencies perform their missions more effectively.”

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