FAA concerned over bandwidth, not security with iPads

The Air Traffic Organization is in the middle of one of the largest pilots in government testing mobile computing devices. ATO CIO Steve Cooper said business or...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

CAMBRIDGE, Md.– Bandwidth, not security, is rising to become the biggest concern for government users of mobile devices.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization launched one of the largest pilots in government using Apple’s iPad. About 170 employees are pushing the limits of the devices to find out whether bandwidth issues will reduce the effectiveness of the tablet computers.

“We think we can deal with the security issues, but we don’t know how much bandwidth these devices will need,” said Steve Cooper, ATO’s chief information officer. “We are asking some of our pilots to push through as much data as they can to test the bandwidth needs.”

Cooper, speaking at the Federal Senior Management Conference Tuesday, kicked off the pilot early in 2011 with teams of eight people and 24 people in each group. There are about 18 groups under the pilot.

“Each team has to then address a single and specific business objective,” he said. “One team is looking at reach back to FAA documents to see what is our ability to deliver to a wireless tablet. We don’t know if that will work in every case. Do we have enough bandwidth? What kind of speed do they get? Will they be waiting half a day to get all the manuals they need to do the job?”

Another example of what one of the groups is addressing is FAA’s emergency incident response team. That business unit has several applications they use and are putting the software on tablets.

“We wanted to take a look to determine whether or not we could issue a tablet like device as a viable computing device by role for people in the FAA,” he said. “We are trying to see if a tablet device could do everything they need as a computing device as we move forward.”

He said every user after 90 days had to report back to his office with how they meet their business objective.

There are two key questions FAA, or anyone agency, must answer. Can the agency maintain and support the devices? And can the agency secure the devices in compliance with laws and regulations?

Cooper said security is among FAA’s foremost concerns.

Cooper said ATO is not letting its most of its iPad users connect to the FAA’s network. Only a limited number have access to their desktops through a virtual private network (VPN).

“We have used some software we were already using to support our usual VPN access inside the FAA network,” Cooper said. “We’ve worked with both our vendor and our internal technical folks and we have put that application on the iPad. The teams can use the software, which is secure and encrypted, to access their desktop inside the FAA network.”

ATO is testing several other emerging technologies to secure mobile devices.

Cooper said ATO is testing software to virtualize the devices’ desktop where the user has access to their data and applications when the hardware is turned on. But once the tablet is turned off, the machine is wiped clean of all data.

He said if the device is lost or stolen, FAA’s data is not compromised.

A recent group just kicked off a test to see if they could use a reader to authenticate to the iPad using their secure identity card under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12.

And finally, ATO employees have expanded the use of software to encrypt e-mail through the iPad.

Cooper said these efforts are just in the beginning stages and is unsure how well they are working.

“I’m going to assume we, not just the FAA, but the federal government, will solve the security aspects of a tablet device,” he said. “It may not happen tomorrow, but in the next year we will be able to secure these devices. We will be compliant and issue an authority to operate.”

Cooper added he formed a user’s forum to bring someone from each of the 18 groups together in a weekly meeting to discuss successes and challenges in using the tablet computers. He said employees use as much creativity as they want in how they use the tablets, but must share their experiences in the forum so others can benefit.

Cooper said ATO has spent between $400,000 and $650,000 on the pilots so far and is preparing to expand it to include iPad 2.

He said starting around May ATO will begin a 90-day test of other non-Apple tablets, including HP’s Slate, Research in Motion’s Playbook and the Samsung Galaxy.

Cooper said the first round of pilots lasted 90 days and out of 170 people, only three gave their iPads back.

“There is a huge economic case to be made for the efficiencies these devices could bring,” Cooper said.

(Copyright 2011 by FederalNewsRadio.com. All Rights Reserved.)

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