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Getting external Wi-Fi in government offices

Having access to modern tools is a prerequisite for delivering modern digital services. We’ve written previously about the importance of modern tools, like MacBooks and Linux-based laptops, for design and software development work.

One of the key ingredients when using these tools is access to external, unfiltered Internet. Our partners across government often ask us how to get external Wi-Fi access for their teams. Here are a few of the options we’ve explored and recommend.

This post is focused on using external devices for unclassified design and software development work. If you’re dealing with sensitive or protected information, be sure to use an approved device (your department-issued computer and protected network, for example). Note that some links in this post are only available on Government of Canada networks.

Tethering on a smartphone

For teams that are beginning to use non-standard devices, tethering is often the fastest approach since it can be done without any external dependencies. This lets you connect your laptop or other devices via Wi-Fi to your smartphone.

On newer government smartphones, tethering is usually available by default. To turn on tethering, go to the “Network” or “Connections” settings on your phone, and look for a “tethering” or “mobile hotspot” option. If the option is disabled or doesn’t show up, talk to your department’s IT service desk.

The most recent government cell phone contracts have a monthly data cap starting at 2GB.

A single smartphone can usually support between one and five connected devices, but this depends on the quality of cell reception in your office. In older concrete buildings, this can be a challenge. Tethering can also quickly drain your phone’s battery, so keeping it plugged in to a charger is useful. Overall, tethering works great as a starting point but might be frustrating for everyday use.

Portable Wi-Fi hotspots

A portable Wi-Fi hotspot (often called a “Mi-Fi device”) is a small device that includes a SIM card to connect to the Internet over a cell network, and a built-in Wi-Fi router that other devices can connect to. Like tethering, its effectiveness depends a lot on the quality of cell reception in your building.

One benefit is that portable Wi-Fi hotspots can be shared by a team, and don’t depend on one person dedicating their phone to be the Internet provider. In our service delivery work, we’ve found that co-locating with departmental teams is essential. Portable hotspots have been really useful in these cases, to be able to work from a variety of locations.

You can purchase portable hotspots online through third parties. Shared Services Canada (SSC) has a list of approved devices (internal). At CDS we use the Novotel Wireless Mifi (under “Wireless Internet” in the list of approved devices).

Request a SIM card through SSC, using the “data-only plan” option (internal). It might take about a month or two to receive a SIM card and begin using the Mi-Fi device. Talk to your department’s contracting or IT services division to start this process.

An important thing to note – once you get your device, follow the product’s instructions for setting up a password. Most devices are set to an open connection by default.

Local Internet Access Service (small-scale)

SSC provides Local Internet Access Service (internal) or LIAS by installing third-party, unfiltered Internet connections in specific locations. Typically, this is a Rogers or Bell connection that is wired to a specific desk within an office and connected to a household-grade router. LIAS is often the best option for small teams of 4 to 8 people since it doesn’t depend on cell network reception or limited data plans.

You’ll need to specify exactly where the connection and router should be located. Changing this to a new location (e.g. if your team moves to a new floor) can take as long as it did to install LIAS initially. You’ll also need to specify the Internet service plan (e.g. cost and network speed) based on the size of your team. A 25 Mbps connection can support about a dozen people.

Getting a new LIAS connection approved and installed can take around four to six months. It’s useful to identify which services you need, and to pre-plan for these, before moving into a new office space. You’ll need the support of your department’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and may need to sign an Authority to Operate letter before using the new connection.

Local Internet Access Service (medium-scale)

In mid-2018, CDS moved to a new office location in a renovated building. In the new building, our Information Management and Technology Division (IMTD) colleagues had installed extra network connections to each desk, in addition to the regular Protected B departmental network. With their support, and with the go-ahead from our department’s IT security team, we requested a faster LIAS connection and connected it to a series of high-capacity Wi-Fi routers spread across the floor.

We’re currently using a 250 Mbps LIAS connection, which supports a team of about 50 people. Managing and securing the ten or so routers takes time and specialized expertise, and might not be a feasible option for all teams. Having the network wiring already in place was essential. We’re really grateful to our IMTD colleagues for making this possible, particularly David Wiggins who led the tech fit-up for the renovation project.

GC-WIFI

In some newer or renovated government offices, SSC is introducing GC-WIFI (internal). This is a separate Internet connection that piggybacks on existing government network infrastructure. GC-WIFI is a new service aimed at supporting external devices for guests and departmental partners, as well as specialized devices like Wi-Fi-powered display screens.

Because GC-WIFI uses existing, large-scale network infrastructure, it’s well-suited to large teams that use non-standard devices and need external Internet access. However, it usually still has some content filtering applied, which can make it unsuitable for software development work.

GC-WIFI is usually only available as part of network upgrades that SSC conducts on government buildings. Talk to your department’s CIO to see if it’s a future possibility for your building. Identifying your department’s security requirements and firewall rules (with SSC and your local IT security team) and adjusting these to meet teams’ needs is a key first step.

Other options

As more departments stand up digital teams, and adopt new tech stacks and tools, we’ve seen a lot of creative options to get external Wi-Fi access. This includes everything from working remotely from home or a coffee shop, to getting memberships at co-working spaces, to new initiatives like Public Services and Procurement Canada’s GCworkspace program.

Anytime we see departments thinking outside the box to make their employees happier, more effective, and more equipped for modern ways of working, we’re excited to spread the word. Let us know how you’ve tackled getting your team the resources and tools that it needs!