Shopping for wireless: SafeCom to fund new communications interoperability projects

<@VM>Interoperability: Don't start from scratch

SafeCom's planned broad agency announcement "will stir up some larger efforts in regional interoperability," said Thom Rubel of Meta Group Inc.

J. Adam Fenster

The Department of Homeland Security early next year will issue a broad agency announcement soliciting applications for wireless communications interoperability pilot projects around the country.

SafeCom program manager David Boyd said the number of new initiatives will depend on the nature of the proposals received. They will be funded not only by SafeCom, which has an annual budget of $42 million, but also by programs within the departments of Agriculture and Justice, he said.

Project SafeCom last month issued a request for information seeking white papers from the private sector describing technologies, services and concepts for wireless communications interoperability.

Federal officials are trying to identify existing technologies and those under development that might support wireless interoperability for the nation's 44,000 state and local public safety agencies, as well as the 100 federal agencies that also support public safety, Boyd said.

Responses to the RFI were due Nov. 14. At press time, SafeCom had received 121 responses to date to the wireless communications interoperability RFI, according to Michelle Petrovich, a DHS spokeswoman.

SafeCom will use the RFI, as well as a statement of requirements it is currently developing, to identify technologies that haven't been implemented in this arena "that may provide some promising answers" to interoperability, he said.

SafeCom officials tentatively plan to issue the broad agency announcement in January, Boyd said.

Industry officials said this effort indicates that wireless interoperability may form one of the first major opportunities for homeland security integration in the state and local market following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington more than two years ago.

The Office of Management and Budget established SafeCom to serve as the umbrella program to improve public safety response at all levels of government through more efficient and effective interoperable wireless communications. It eventually was moved to DHS' Directorate of Science and Technology.

SafeCom currently supports pilot projects in 25 major cities around the country where there are large concentrations of federal law enforcement and public safety, Boyd said earlier this month in testimony before two subcommittees of the House Government Reform Committee.

The new pilots projects are likely to differ in two ways from the Justice Department's 25 Cities Project. First, they are not necessarily restricted to regions with large concentrations of federal public safety personnel. Second, they are intended to serve as a proving ground for emerging technologies.

SafeCom's planned broad agency announcement "will stir up some larger efforts in regional interoperability," said Thom Rubel, vice president of government strategies for market research and consulting firm Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn.

State and local government spending on products, services and solutions for public safety will increase at an average annual growth rate of 6 percent from $6.1 billion in 2003 to $7.26 billion in 2006, according to market research and consulting firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Neither the federal government nor Gartner have estimated the cost for public safety agencies to achieve wireless interoperability.

Systems integration for wireless communications involves everything from systems design, development and testing to services for training, implementation, operational support and maintenance.

Gerry Wethington, president of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Chief Information Officers and Missouri's chief information officer, said federal funding alone will not cover the costs for improving communications among first responders.

"I believe you will see [states] pouring money into interoperability," he said.

So far DHS has provided state and local first responders with more than $6 billion to help them enhance their emergency response capabilities. Most of the funding will be spent on equipment and training, but an undetermined portion may wind up supporting interoperability initiatives.

"States will find a way to use homeland security money to support [communications] interoperability projects within their jurisdictions," Wethington said.

DHS provided $79.6 million to 17 regions in September to support interoperability pilot projects at the local government level. The grants range in size from about $1 million to $6 million.

Rubel said that the approach of providing a small amount of money through a pilot project helps ensure project success. If the federal government were to make a large amount of money available, then agencies would bypass the essential step of strategic planning and go straight to buying equipment, he said.

"While it may not be the big splash [everyone is hoping for], it may be enough money to get the right groups of people together," he said. "There is a danger that if there is too many resources out there, everyone may rush for a single solution, and that may not be the best thing in the long run."

For the projects to succeed, the participating agencies have to implement an effective governance structure to guide the investments that are needed to get the project done properly, he said.

The larger pilot projects may come to resemble the five-year, $20 million Capital Wireless Integrated Network, or CapWIN, project awarded last year to a consortium led by IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y. The project ultimately will enable 10,000 first responders from 35 federal, state and local agencies in the Washington metropolitan area to communicate and share information with each other.

SafeCom plans to promote the CapWIN model to other areas around the country as an example of how to incorporate new technologies into emergency communications systems.

"While CapWIN hasn't yet been able to test all of the elements of interoperability we're interested in, it has done more than any other single project of its scale anywhere," Boyd said.

If other regions invest heavily in interoperability, they can probably attain their goals, Wethington said. But to do so will require the unwavering support of all of the governments and agencies involved, he said.

"You have to find a group of willing participants, because if people are playing games and aren't willing to participate, then the timeline extends, the cost goes up and $20 million won't do it."

Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at
One of the chief factors that will determine the success of regional or statewide wireless communications interoperability projects is the ability of the jurisdictions to take advantage of existing resources.

"If you have to do an [interoperability project] from scratch, it won't work, because it will be too expensive," said Gerry Wethington, president of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Chief Information Officers and Missouri's chief information officer.

A few states are either close to creating interoperable wireless systems for their public safety agencies, or they are laying plans to achieve it, government officials said.

South Dakota fits into the first category. The state has achieved about 90 percent interoperability by investing federal and state funds, said David Boyd, program manager with the Project SafeCom, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security's Directorate of Science and Technology.

Delaware falls into the second category. The state plans to address interoperability as part of an upgrade to its statewide radio network project next year, said Tom Jarrett, NASCIO's vice president and Delaware's CIO. Having a statewide radio network means that Delaware "is ahead of the curve," he said.

Delaware plans to commit $20 million to $50 million from its general funds to the radio network upgrade, and to use a $2.4 million interoperability grant from the Homeland Security Department to the Rehoboth Beach area for the effort, he said. Rehoboth Beach was one of 17 local governments that received an interoperable communications grant from DHS in September.

Boyd said the cost of interoperability projects will vary from region to region and state to state, depending on the state of technology, the number of participants and the size of the region.

Small jurisdictions and those with modern infrastructure to support interoperability will have an easier time achieving interoperability than those with older equipment, Boyd said.

In those situations, interoperability "may wind up costing a great deal more and require a much larger commitment by the jurisdictions involved or the states that are supporting it," he said.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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