An increasing number of government agencies are discovering how to use technology to increase the productivity of their workers and enhance the speed and quality of services those workers provide to the public.

Whether it’s updating the status on a repaired water main, filing a vandalism report, sending social service records or reviewing building code requirements, government agencies are using laptops, tablets and smart phones connected to wireless networks to accomplish more work in less time.

Historically, the acute need for real-time information made police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) the earliest adopters of mobile communications technology. Equipped with ruggedized laptops, first responders are connected to computer-aided dispatch, criminal records systems, GIS databases and a variety of government applications. Today, the use of mobile technology is evolving far beyond just public safety and emergency services. It is commonplace to find a public-works inspector, child and family services worker, or probations officer working remotely using a laptop.

But moving from a wired desktop to a mobile laptop environment is not as simple as removing an Ethernet connection and joining an available wireless network. There are new security concerns and bandwidth limitations, not to mention that many government applications were never designed to work in a wireless environment.

With these limitations and others in mind, a new class of virtual private networks, known as mobile VPNs, was created. Designed specifically for the complexities of wireless computing, mobile VPNs solve many of the challenges faced by workers in the field. Much like a legacy SSL or IPSec VPN, a mobile VPN secures and protects all data in transit from unauthorized access.

Unique to mobile VPNs, however, is their ability to allow applications to persist through periods of disconnection. Thus, the applications survive should connectivity be interrupted, which means that workers do not have to re-login and restart applications throughout the course of their workday — an important feature when one’s job requires constant travel. Mobile VPNs also enable workers’ device connections to roam onto any approved network, which ensures continuity of information access at all times.

A recent survey conducted by NetMotion Wireless and completed by more than 250 U.S. city, county and state governments indicated that nearly 90% of respondents use mobile VPNs in their police departments, followed by fire departments and EMS. However, as mobile VPNs increasingly are becoming a standard part of any mobile technology solution, their broad adoption into other areas of government services, such as public works, is a visible trend. Public works is defined differently from state to state, but frequently is comprised of transportation infrastructure, water services and sanitation, building and food-service inspection and other municipal engineering and construction organizations.

Survey results showed that prior to 2008, only 15% of public works agencies used mobile VPNs. However, the positive user acceptance and increased productivity amongst first-responder organizations led to a dramatic increase in mobile VPN usage by public-works departments. By the end of 2010, more than half of those surveyed deployed mobile VPNs to increase the job effectiveness of their public-works personnel.

Per survey results, an additional 40% of public-works departments will deploy mobile VPNs to their field workers in the next 12 months. In doing so, public-works departments soon will rival first-responder organizations for broad implementation of mobile VPNs.

Survey respondents also saw a significant boost in productivity as a result of their mobile VPN deployments. Of those surveyed, 80% said that their workers could accomplish more job tasks per day as a result of using a mobile VPN.

The primary reason given for this increase was the capability of a mobile VPN to maintain applications even through periods of lost network access. The mobile VPN software stabilizes the various applications and processes running on the device by pausing them until connectivity is reestablished. The mobile VPN always is actively seeking out the best available network to connect or reconnect with, and does so behind the scenes without user intervention. From a user’s perspective, the device and its applications lose connectivity from time to time, but none of the applications ever fail or crash — a common experience when using an SSL or IPSec VPN.

Over half of the responding agencies also saw a decrease in the number of trouble tickets related to connectivity issues. As the device does not suffer from frequent network disconnects, operating system processes and applications continue to function normally and users have more of a landline-quality computing experience.

Further, respondents overwhelmingly confirmed the value of a mobile VPN. Of those who took the survey, 99% said that it was the key element to their mobile strategy, with more than 80% of those questioned saying that it was “very important — a must have.”

The pressure of having to accomplish more with fewer resources is daunting, but innovations in mobile technologies are enabling government agencies such as first responders, emergency services and public works to act and react with greater efficiency than ever before. As new technologies are introduced, and policies are changed to respond to those technologies, the ways in which government agencies conduct business will continue to shift — for the betterment of their field personnel and the citizens they serve.

Bob Hunsberger is the president and CEO of NetMotion Wireless. He previously served as president and CEO of Bluetooth-software company Widcomm and chairman and CEO of smart-antenna company Metawave Communications.

Related Stories