Mixed signals for state radio system
Motorola, legislators blast Pennsylvania project for continued delays
Arthur Stephens, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for information technology and chief information officer
Pennsylvania officials are struggling to build a pre-Sept. 11, 2001, statewide radio system that must meet the needs of a world radically changed by the events of that day.
The Pennsylvania Statewide Public Safety Radio System has become a focus of concern for state officials and lawmakers who are trying to adapt a project already three years behind schedule to the needs of city and county first responders.
Faced with lengthy schedule delays and shifting requirements, the Pennsylvania Office of Administration has hired an independent consultant to advise on the fastest way to complete the project and provide wireless interoperability to local governments.
State officials announced in May that they had hired iXP Corp. of Lawrenceville, N.J., a provider of emergency communications consulting and integration services, to make recommendations for completing the project in a cost-effective and efficient manner, said Art Stephens, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for information technology and chief information officer.
"We want an independent firm to assess if this will work statewide for public safety agencies and [to determine] the fastest way for us to achieve that mission," Stephens said.
The consultant will review the project's software and architecture, first-responder interoperability plans and other obstacles to transitioning from legacy systems to the new system, he said.
The independent review is being done largely at the request of Pennsylvania Reps. Kelly Lewis and Patrick Browne.
The project aims to link state agencies, but its failure to provide for interoperability with first responders "is totally disappointing," Lewis told Washington Technology. Despite the project's shortcomings, neither Gov. Edward Rendell (D) nor the legislature is considering canceling the project and starting over, he said.
Motorola Inc. of Schaumberg, Ill., has been very critical of the project. In 1999, the company lost a $95 million contract to provide mobile radio equipment and base stations for the system.
M/A-Com Inc. of Lowell, Mass., won the contract primarily because it promised to implement the system in less than two years.
Motorola alleges that the "Open Sky" platform M/A-Com built for the statewide radio system does not work properly and is not being used extensively by state public safety agencies.
"The project to be completed within 20 months is now approaching the five-year mark -- over three years late with no foreseeable end," wrote Ken Denslow, corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola Commercial, Government and Industrial Solutions Sector's Northern Division, in a June 1 letter to Gov. Rendell.
Denslow called on Rendell to "fully investigate all aspects of the project." The company sent copies of the letter to the state auditor general and to each member of the legislature.
State officials overseeing the project dispute these allegations. The Pennsylvania Office of Administration said, for example, the Radio Project Office accepted the system as "public-safety ready" in September 2003, and that it now has 4,000 voice users and 1,000 data users.
The voice users include personnel from Pennsylvania's State Police, Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Department, Attorney General, Probation and Parole, Health Department and National Guard, the agency said. The primary data user is the Pennsylvania State Police.
Despite the numbers, state lawmakers are unconvinced that the system is working as intended. Until the consultant's study is finished, it is hard to know who is telling the truth, Lewis said.
"The problem is this kind of blind allegiance [on the part of state officials] to a platform that hasn't proved itself to work," he said.
READY TO ROCK
The state awarded separate contracts totaling $222 million in 1999 to four companies ? Alcatel USA Inc., M/A-Com, Rohn Industries Inc. and RCC Consultants -- to build various parts of a statewide wireless network for mobile and fixed-position radios that would support voice and data applications.
The state established the Radio Project Office to oversee the project and act as prime contractor and systems integrator. The total cost of the system is now $240 million, state officials said.
The timeline of 18 to 20 months established by former Gov. Tom Ridge's administration to complete the system was overly ambitious, according to the current administration.
"The project has taken too long to implement due to a variety of factors, including land use agreements, contractor bankruptcies and agency transition issues," Stephens said.
M/A-Com officials agreed.
"There were a lot of concerns about the time it took. There were issues on everyone's part, including the team of companies," said John Vaughn, vice president and general manager of wireless systems at M/A-Com.
The project hit a major snag in September 2003 when Rohn Industries of Peoria, Ill., provider of the large cell towers required for the network, filed for bankruptcy. The state has been unable to build the remaining cell towers for the past nine months because of the bankruptcy proceedings, Stephens said.
Pennsylvania is talking with a new contractor to complete the remaining large towers, he said. In addition to the large towers, there are about 400 microcells that must be installed throughout the state to fill gaps in rural areas that the towers don't cover.
M/A-Com, which is responsible for installing the microcells, is waiting for the state to acquire the sites before it can deploy them, Vaughn said. "We have them warehoused and are ready to rock and roll as soon as those sites become available," he said.
When the request for proposal for the project was released, Motorola said it could build the system in 36 months, not in 18 to 20 months as the state wanted. M/A-Com, which agreed to complete the contract in 20 months, won the contract.
"For some reason, the state and M/A-Com thought they could get it done in that time frame," said Mark Schmidl, vice president of sales for Motorola Commercial, Government and Industrial Solutions Sector's Northern Division. He said it typically takes Motorola 36 to 48 months to implement a statewide radio system.
However, Vaughn said M/A-Com's piece of the project is essentially done, and delays are because agencies aren't sufficiently trained to use the new system.
"The issue now is not coverage and technologies but how to continue and accelerate the transition of agencies to the system," he said.
FIGHTING FOR LOCAL BUSINESS
Motorola's strong, public criticism of the new statewide communications system isn't just sour grapes. The company also is fighting to protect potential business with local governments in Pennsylvania.
Many cities and counties are preparing to buy radio equipment for first responders and other emergency personnel, but Motorola contends that state officials are threatening to withhold federal grants for homeland security from governments that choose to build radio communications systems outside the new statewide system.
"In Pennsylvania, virtually every time a county has embarked on radio communications project, the state has strongly urged it join the state system, even in cases where that county has indicated a preference to develop its own system," Denslow told the governor in his June 1 letter.
Denslow said that Motorola plans to continue marketing its radio equipment and systems to local governments throughout the state, and asked the governor to restrain members of his administration from trying to block those efforts.
Motorola has public safety radio customers in several Pennsylvania counties, including Bucks, Montgomery, Philadelphia and Westmoreland, Schmidl said. These local governments have looked at the statewide radio system and decided to go with Motorola instead, he said.
As initially conceived and built, the statewide system is not interoperable with local government first responders; but the original contract also required that the system could be expanded to include counties and cities, M/A-Com's Vaughn said.
Consequently, the company's Open Sky system is capable of providing a strong foundation for first-responder interoperability.
Some observers also said that Motorola's attack on the Pennsylvania statewide radio system is motivated by fear that it could lose other statewide deals to M/A-Com.
"Motorola is very threatened by M/A-Com, because other states are thinking about using [M/A Com's Open Sky] system," said a source who asked not to be identified. "They may be thinking, 'We can give M/A-Com a black eye in Pennsylvania.' "
Indeed, Motorola appears to be on the verge of losing a similar statewide radio system deal in New York to M/A-Com. In April, the Empire State selected M/A-Com as the potential prime contractor for its statewide wireless network.
As of press time, the New York Office for Technology was negotiating terms of a possible 20-year deal with M/A-Com, said Rob Roddy, special assistant to the New York chief information officer. Roddy declined to disclose the potential value, but the contract is reportedly worth about $1 billion.
Staff Writer William Welsh can be reached at email@example.com.