More questions than answers
Cost, schedule and technology of Boeing's SBI-Net win undetermined
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Sep 29, 2006
Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff answered one big border surveillance question last month by naming the Boeing Co. as the prime contractor for the Secure Border Initiative Network.
But in answering that question, he raised a raft of new ones.
The first 28 miles of the 6,000-mile SBI-Net surveillance system is set for completion by spring 2007, but unresolved issues include how quickly the project will proceed, how much it will cost and what technologies it will deploy.
Looming over everything is whether SBI-Net will be more successful than previous border surveillance attempts.
For example, on the questions of scheduling and cost, Chertoff and DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson pegged the expense of the first 28-mile phase near Tucson, Ariz., at $67 million, to be operational by next April. The initial contract will be for three years.
Jackson, asked repeatedly by reporters about analysts' estimates of $2 billion to cover the entire Mexican and Canadian borders, refused to confirm the amount and said it was "totally unreasonable" to set an amount at this stage.
"Are you denying that $2.1 billion is an accurate figure?" Jackson was asked.
"Flat out denying it. Write it down," Jackson said.
Chertoff weighed in on the price tag as well. "It's supposed to be as inexpensive as possible. If we can get it for less than $2 billion, we'll get it for less than $2 billion," he said at the press conference.
Later in the press conference, Jackson said that Boeing will be paid a $2 million minimum under the SBI-Net contracting documents.
"Yes, there was a $2 million guaranteed minimum. We feel like that's not going to be a problem to meet," Jackson said.
The cost could soar, however. In congressional testimony Sept. 13, several technology experts said that speedy deployment of SBI-Net could lead to skyrocketing costs.
"In the short term, we're looking at enormous expense," said Gregory Pottie, associate dean for research at the University of California Los Angeles. "Over time, the system would work better, be less expensive and more efficient."
"The borders can be secured," Jay Cohen, DHS undersecretary of science and technology, said at the hearing. "The question is, to what degree ... we can do this, but at what cost, what timeline and what degree of fidelity?"Dollars and questions
Experts predict that SBI-Net will run into the $2 billion to $3 billion range, an estimate that has not changed much since at least 2004, when a predecessor federal border surveillance system, America's Shield Initiative, was valued at $2 billion. That contract was never awarded.
Questions also remain as to technologies to be deployed. DHS officials announced Sept. 21 that Boeing is to lead the winning team, because Boeing offered best value over the other four teams, but the officials offered few details.
All five competing teams put forth a mix of technologies, including cameras, sensors, radars and analytics. Many technologies would be placed either on towers or fences, or on mobile platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and linked with border agents' communications and radio networks.
Before winning the bid, Boeing officials described their solution as having few UAVs and possibly as many as 1,800 towers, which would support cameras and sensors.
However, on Sept. 21, Jackson was more circumspect about the tower configurations. Portable towers would be used immediately to speed implementation, and permanent towers would be phased in, he said. But, he added, what is used in the first 28 miles won't necessarily be applied to the entire border.
That pre-supposes a smooth transition from portable to permanent towers, but experts said portable towers offer only limited wireless services, and it might take a decade or longer to complete the permanent installation.
Permanent towers typically are used along with fiber-optic cables that provide broad bandwidth and support much more robust communication networks.
"With portable towers, you can do immediate radio and communication, but the benefits of video would have to wait for the permanent installation," said Chris Josephs, homeland security director for Cisco Systems Inc.
Fiber-optic cables and permanent towers are expensive and time-consuming to implement and potentially could raise environmental and permitting issues. The Coast Guard's Rescue 21 project, which is deploying communication towers along coastlines, has been behind schedule partly as a result of environmental issues and permitting delays.Further into nowhere
The initial 28 miles might not be so difficult for SBI-Net, but once you get to remote areas with no power, the problems greatly increase, Josephs said.
On the other hand, Boeing's lack of reliance on UAVs, in contrast to other teams, may have reduced its costs and been a factor in its favor.
"Integrating sensor data from many different UAVs is a lot more expensive than integrating it from stationary cameras on towers," said an industry expert who asked not to be identified.
Boeing officials also claimed that because they make few UAVs, sensors or cameras, they will have more independence than the other bidders in their make-or-buy decisions for SBI-Net.
Several of the other bidders, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co., also make UAVs, sensors or other border security devices.
Some policy analysts believe make-or-buy was an argument in Boeing's favor.
"Obviously, it is a lot easier to make the case [that] when you don't make something, you will get the best available technologies," said James Carafano, senior research fellow for homeland security with the Heritage Foundation think tank.
Chertoff and Jackson said DHS would set benchmarks to measure progress for SBI-Net to avoid the failures of the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) surveillance system, which was deployed along U.S. borders starting in 1997. But they declined to give details on what those measures might be.
ISIS was criticized for cost overruns and lack of reliability. A December 2004 report from the General Services Administration inspector general found improper billing, failure to deliver appropriate systems and other shortcomings.
In addition, the DHS inspector general concluded in a December 2005 report that although $429 million has been spent on ISIS, the cameras are not fully integrated with the sensors, and the procurement has been marred by delays, cost overruns and ineffective oversight.
Chertoff said SBI-Net will avoid those problems, because it is more comprehensive than previous programs.
"We've applied a strategic approach," Chertoff said. "The key is integration. That did not exist before."
The question is: Will it be comprehensive enough? Coast Guard officials have said that if SBI-Net is successful in closing off land borders, they expect an increase in the number of illegal immigrants and possibly terrorists attempting more water crossings. Jackson addressed this concern Sept. 21, stating that SBI-Net would be integrated with the Coast Guard's Rescue 21 communication system modernization program.
But some experts said an even higher-level approach is needed.
"You cannot deploy SBI-Net in a vacuum," Carafano said. "It has to be integrated with the Coast Guard and the Interior Department."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at email@example.com.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.