Troubleshooting telecom

New post at DHS could improve strategy

The buzz around the assistant secretary

  • Who will be nominated?

  • How much authority will the position have?

  • Will the post oversee projects such as Safecom and the Wireless Management Office?

  • How will the assistant secretary's duties interact with other telecom-related initiatives, such as enhanced 911 and cell phone initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission?

  • What role will the position play in setting security standards in areas where IT overlaps with telecom?

DHS telecom initiatives

Cyber/Telecom Office


  • National Communications System

  • Wireless Priority Service

Science & Technology Directorate

  • Safecom: A program to create standards for first-responder wireless communications

Office of the Chief Information Officer

  • Wireless Management Office: Oversees wireless IT policy
A little-noticed provision in Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's reorganization plan for the agency creates a higher profile for telecommunications security, yet also raises questions about how that mission will be defined.

Chertoff in July created a new assistant secretary post combining oversight for cybersecurity and telecommunications, and elevating those priorities within the department's management structure. It was one of many changes in his reorganization, portions of which Congress must approve.

The new position -- not yet filled -- had been widely anticipated and promoted in legislation as the nation's cyberczar. The telecommunications portfolio, by comparison, has received less attention.

Even so, most industry officials approve of adding telecommunications within the new post.

"It's the appropriate environment for it," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington trade group for wireless telecommunications companies.

"Combining cybersecurity with telecommunications breaks down the stovepipes," said Shannon Kellogg, director of government affairs for RSA Security Inc. of Bedford, Mass., an IT solutions company. "This is being driven by convergence with global networks and the Internet."



WORK WITH ME

There are questions about how the new post will interact with other telecommunications oversight units within the department and with other federal agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission.

"It is unclear whether the assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications will have authority over all telecommunications activities throughout the department, such as the Safecom program and the Wireless Management Office, both of which seek to improve communications interoperability for first-responder equipment," wrote the 13 Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee July 14 in a response to Chertoff's plan.

Safecom, which resides in the department's Science & Technology Directorate, promotes interoperability among wireless devices, radios and cell phones used by first responders.

The Wireless Management Office, overseeing wireless IT policies, is in the office of the chief information officer. The new post would be part of a new, separate Preparedness Directorate, which Congress must approve.

Among many other duties, the cyber and telecom chief would supervise the National Communications Service, created by the Defense Department after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to establish reliable communications for heads of state and top federal officials during emergencies.

The telecom portfolio also includes the Wireless Priority Service, which lets government leaders sign up for priority cell phone service during disasters.

"Going forward, the assistant secretary for cyber and telecom will play an integral part as we implement our information technology infrastructure protection plan, as well as prepare for a large-scale cybersecurity exercise this November to test our preparedness," Chertoff told an industry group in July.

Chertoff did not specify in his plan how the new position would interact with other telecommunications-related homeland security efforts at DHS or at other federal agencies, particularly at FCC. DHS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

FCC, for one, has been playing a major role in overseeing the telecommunications needs of police, fire and emergency responders, including the need for sufficient radio spectrum without interference with cell phone calls.

Last month, Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) asked DHS to weigh in on how FCC allocates spectrum in the 2-gigahertz range to ensure that first-responder priorities are considered. Also, FCC last year authorized a $4 billion spectrum deal with Nextel Communications Inc. that includes expanded radio spectrum for public safety first responders.

FCC also oversees implementation of enhanced-911 programs to add geographic information within emergency calls from cell phones and to give call centers the opportunity for quicker restoration of service after a disaster. It isn't clear whether the new cyber and telecom czar will be involved in either of those efforts, industry officials said.



LINGERING QUESTIONS

There are unresolved telecommunications policy issues that DHS may be asked to address, such as whether cell phone service ought to be cut off within subway tunnels when there is a terrorist threat to deploy bombs. The aim is to prevent remote detonation of bombs by cell-phone command.

Another issue is setting security standards for areas in which IT overlaps with telecommunications, using voice, data and video formats, said Matt Walton, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a group advocating open standards for vendors producing devices to assist first-responder communications.

"We want to see open standards that anyone can write to," Walton said.

For network security standards for public safety data networks and video surveillance networks, for example, Walton said that both the new telecom office and Safecom should play a role.

"At a minimum, they ought to collaborate," he said.

Telecommunications industry executives and advocacy groups note the uncertainty about the scope of the new cyber and telecom position, but they expect the answers to evolve.

"We need a cybersecurity road map at a high level to see how we can manage our risks and exposure," said Bruce Walker, director of homeland security at Northrop Grumman Corp.

The telecommunications industry is changing so rapidly that its boundaries now overlap with IT, broadcast and cable television, telephone, and radio, said Dan Bart, senior vice president of the Telecommunications Industry Association. That is why it makes sense to combine cybersecurity and telecommunications within one position, he said.

"The new DHS position will coordinate with the other agencies," Bart said. "By putting the responsibility for communications and IT in one place, it will be helpful to diffuse the turf wars."

Both the preparedness undersecretary and the cyber and telecom position are political appointments. President Bush has not yet nominated anyone to those jobs, which the Senate must approve.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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