Govroam – What Is It? What Does It Mean For Us?

by Tony Allen

Govroam, now dubbed a public sector answer to Eduroam, the internet roaming service we all know and reluctantly grew to love, is rapidly gaining traction in the UK following the success in the Netherlands and Belgium. I got in touch with the organisations behind govroam in Europe and the team working to roll it out in the UK to find out what the benefits are and what challenges they have faced.

Govroam has the potential to be an important addition to the UK infrastructure – in the same way as Eduroam, an employee will be able to access the internet on a mobile device such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone, whenever they visit a hotspot in their country, and in the future, perhaps, across the world.

I got in contact with Frank van Iersel, Chairman of the board of the Netherlands’ Government Roaming Foundation, Stichting govroam, who are responsible for implementing the service.

“We have contributed to the standardisation policy of the government… by being able to offer the services on the national, provincial, regional and municipal level of public services, regardless of the traditional political demarcation lines,” Van Iersel said. “[This] has also been valued as an organisational innovation.”

The access and security standards used in govroam and eduroam, called WPA2 Enterprise, have now been added to Dutch government protocol in the Standardisation Forum. This is a set of standards across the public sector for the electronic exchange of information – allowing the consideration of secure systems for employees regardless of residence status. This is regarded as a key reason for the recent success of govroam uptake in the Netherlands.

“The ‘public sector’ is very different from the eduroam community. Eduroam has given us a service that is technically and operationally perfect and has the necessary credibility, but without the in-depth knowledge on the mechanisms of decision making processes in the public sector and the related political context of this market.

“Our next challenge will be to promote the actual penetration of the use of govroam at the end user level, as everybody’s primary SSID in the public sector.”

The Dutch model has acted as something of a benchmark against which other govroam providers can measure themselves. As of April they boasted “72 contracted parties: this means 8 out of 13 ministries, 50 municipalities and related organisations and 14 national agencies such as the National Tax Authority with 30,000 employees.”

Now (May 2017), they have reached over 100 contracted organisations, including 9 of the 13 ministries. By the end of the year they aim to continue their rapid progress and have every Dutch municipality signed up to the service.

Something else which is particularly promising for the future of govroam is the successful trial collaboration which came about between the Netherlands and Belgium. Despite clearly not being the utmost priority for either party, according to an official account of the meeting, it was still seen as important that an international framework was established “to achieve the final goal of having only one international govroam service, based on a common interworking philosophy and following the same standards, procedure and methods”.

Belgium is another key case study in any investigation into the potential successes of govroam. Operators Belnet have overseen a rapid rise in the service’s usage over recent years.

In a press release at the time, Belnet said: “The principle of govroam is simple: government employees use their own user name and password to surf securely on the wireless network, both in their own government department and on the networks of all other participating organisations. This is made possible by access security checks for joint wireless networks.

“The govroam service is provided by Belnet in Belgium and by the Stichting govroam in the Netherlands. Thanks to the agreement signed by both countries, Belgian government employees can now also surf on the Wi-Fi networks in participating governments in the Netherlands, and vice versa.

“Belnet and the Stichting govroam see their agreement to work together as the first step towards an international roll-out of govroam. Both countries are working together to increase the standardisation of govroam, creating an international standard. A number of different countries have already expressed an interest.

With government departments now working together increasingly, govroam is ideal to facilitate the use of wireless networks. Moreover, every organisation decides for themselves who is to be allowed access to the network, and to what level.”

Therefore, by attempting to follow the example of eduroam, Stichting Govroam and Belnet have eyes on the future and on creating a standardised international set of regulations for other countries to follow as govroam grows, in order to allow for a seamless international service.

Mr Van Iersel discussed the potential for even wider international standardisation: “Actually there is hardly a demand for international roaming services with the user organisations. So our emphasis remained on govroam services on the national level. But we had to ensure that technical and operational standards should not diverge.

‘Internationalising govroam will be a comprehensive and step-by-step project. The legal and political situation will be different in all countries and we should not endeavour to change that…”

A period of govroam testing in France has recently hit the headlines, creating more excitement for the possibility of a Europe-wide service.

When I contacted Belnet, Davina Luyten echoed Mr van Iersel’s sentiment: “At the moment, we only have an interconnection with the Netherlands. [However,] Belnet is open to any collaboration with other countries offering govroam and we are convinced that a general deployment of govroam in Europe (as it is the case for eduroam) is an interesting project.”

Belgium is another key case study in any investigation into the potential successes of govroam. Operators Belnet have overseen a rapid rise in the service’s usage over recent years.

Ms Luyten added: “At the moment, we have 13 administrations that have implemented and are using govroam. We believe that this number will still increase, since govroam is in full expansion. There are some ongoing projects which might encourage the use of govroam in Belgium, for example the launch by the federal government of several satellite offices where govroam is used. During the last 6 months [Nov 2016-April 2017], we had 13,500 [connection] requests.”

The advantages for Belgium were outlined thus: “Increased mobility and better collaboration: govroam increases the mobility of collaborators from administrations or public services. They have simple and secure wireless internet access at their own organisations and all other participating organisations making it very easy to collaborate.

“Efficient registration: users need only one account to surf wirelessly, both within their own institutions and in other organisations which use govroam. Once the service has been activated for a user, there is no further administrative work.”

As is the case in Belgium, it is the responsibility of Britain’s NREN, Jisc, to develop infrastructure for and operate govroam, after years of planning. Jisc carries out a whole range of different services including implementing the UK’s eduroam. I contacted Jisc to enquire about the prospects of govroam in the UK.

Jisc’s Head of Network Access, Mark O’Leary, told me: “The technical solution is fully realised and we are running an Early Adopter phase on the technical solution. This will run until early summer, when we plan to go into full production.

“Even at this early stage, we have signed up key public service networks in the UK such as London, Kent, and Yorkshire and Humberside. These regional federations together account for several thousand venues across local government, NHS, and blue light services.”

As for the potential impact of govroam once it is rolled out nationally, Mr O’Leary remarked: “The sky’s the limit! From our experience running eduroam, we know that easy access to roaming creates a culture change and results in greater collaboration and resource sharing. In a typical month for eduroam, we support the roaming of around 1.2 million unique devices, which we estimate represents more than 20,000 person years of productivity for that month.”

I was particularly interested to find out about the possibility of internationalising govroam to include the UK (for use, say, by British diplomats travelling abroad for work) once it is successfully operational here, considering the optimism of the European govroam administrators that I spoke to regarding collaboration.

And I was given an encouraging answer: “The stakeholders we are speaking to are very much focussed on roaming within the UK, but we expect that, as the public sector roaming community matures, they will be more open to the international dimension. With that in mind, we are maintaining technical compatibility with European developments and are helping develop the international version of govroam.”

So, should the UK be able to harness the successes which govroam has enjoyed in two of its most successful deployments in the Netherlands and Belgium, it could revolutionise the web access of public servants, making setup faster and eliminating the time currently wasted setting up guest or visitor accounts. The promise shown by the low countries’ collaboration gives a flavour of what could be possible in the current internationalised working climate if more countries’ NRENs adopt govroam and collaborate to provide an even more seamless service.

image courtesy of Matthew Guay at https://unsplash.com/@maguay

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