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House Wiring Tunnels For Mobile Phone Service

Attention, schedulers. Beginning early next year, the precious, if little, time your boss is currently unavailable by phone will soon disappear. By March 2004, the tunnels between the House office buildings and the Capitol will be equipped for wireless phone signals, so Members will never be out of touch on the way to a vote again.

The new infrastructure is part of an effort by the House Administration Committee to upgrade the technology — including the BlackBerries — used by Members and staff.

“Right now, in many parts of the Capitol, cellphone coverage is sketchy,” Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said. “They are in the process of basically wiring the [tunnels], so Members and staff will be able to use cellphones through a great portion of the Capitol.”

Foxcom, a provider of fiber-optic transmissions systems, has been working to install the antennas that will carry the wireless phone signals. The contract was given to the Israel-based company to install the wiring. Individual phone carriers each had to pay for their own central control units.

“When I became chairman this contract had been lingering” due to security issues, Ney said. “It’s something that Members have been all over me … to do.

“It will literally give you a 10-minute walk over there and a 10-minute walk back,” he added of the underground commute between the Capitol and the office buildings.

But as dramatic as underground wireless phone capability is likely to be in the day-to-day lives of Members and staff, there has been even more drama recently in the world of the other — and arguably Congress’ favorite — wireless gadget: the BlackBerry.

When thousands of the mobile e-mail devices were purchased to mitigate the kinds of mass confusion Capitol Hill experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, Congressional officials deemed them the best technology available. (Congress began using the devices before that, however, as early as summer 2000.)

In the past year or so, however, the BlackBerry’s monopoly on the Hill (and indeed throughout the federal government) has been threatened by two independent forces: the emergence of new technology and a lawsuit against BlackBerry’s Canadian manufacturer, Research in Motion.

The dispute actually began in early 2000 when a private holding company in Virginia, NTP Inc., contacted RIM alleging the manufacturer infringed on five of its patents related to radio-frequency wireless communication.

In November 2002 a jury determined that RIM violated the five patents. And in August, after almost three years in court, a U.S. District judge ordered RIM to pay $53.7 million in damages, interest and attorneys’ fees for patent infringement but immediately stayed the ruling to allow RIM the opportunity to appeal.

Regardless of the outcome, however, it’s extremely unlikely the BlackBerry service will be shut down, although that remained a distinct possibility earlier in the case.

Two unusual events occurred since then, underlining the federal government’s dependence on the system for emergency communications.

At the end of December 2002, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ordered a rare re-examination of the patents.

A few weeks later, Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen wrote a letter to both parties in the lawsuit, basically begging that the companies resolve their differences without turning off the wireless system upon which Congress had become so dependent.

“It is our understanding that were the Court to grant NTP’s motion [for injunctive relief], BlackBerry service to the House could be shut down,” Eagen wrote to the two parties. “Although we recognize that technology continues to evolve and improve, at this time [House Information Resources] is unaware of any substitute for the BlackBerry system which could duplicate its functionality in terms of emergency communications, security and reliability.”

Ney said he asked Eagen to write the letter.

“It’s not my opinion, … but I will always protect the House’s position. We’re not interfering with the lawsuit, but we are not just going to stand by” and let the BlackBerries get turned off, Ney said. “It’s national security.

“The judge did not shut off the BlackBerries, … so that’s good news for us,” he added, pointing out that House Administration has been looking into better or different technology.

“We’re actually doing that now.”

The committee plans to pilot a new device — with both e-mail and phone capabilities in one — this fall. The problem with previous combination models, Ney said, was their relatively short battery life. New products have largely solved that problem.

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