Hurricanes a boost for Integrated Wireless Network

Prospects might be brightening slightly for procurement activity on the multibillion-dollar federal Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) as a result of lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The new national network, which may take 15 years to build and has a price tag estimated at up to $10 billion, would bring together federal law enforcement agents from the Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury departments into a single wireless infrastructure.

The four finalists -- AT&T Corp., General Dynamics Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Motorola Inc. -- in November submitted final proposals for the second phase. The Boeing Co., which also had been named as a finalist, withdrew from the competition earlier this year.

The multiphased IWN has been delayed, amended and underfunded in recent years. But communications breakdowns following the Gulf Coast hurricanes demonstrated shortcomings of federal wireless connectivity and raised interest in ensuring redundancy, survivability and operation under extreme conditions.

Those factors may add a sense of urgency and give higher priority to plans to deploy IWN, according to several contractors.

"Katrina has shown, once again, the vulnerability of the implemented federal networks and how fragile they are," said Ernest "Bill" Wagner, vice president for homeland security at AT&T Government Solutions in Vienna, Va., the AT&T unit pursuing the contract.

"If the government goes through the expense of building IWN, it will want to address some of the IT infrastructure problems that occurred following Katrina," said Frank Longo, vice president of business development, consulting services for Opnet Technologies Inc. of Bethesda, Md., a network management, software and professional services provider. Longo declined to name which of the IWN bidders Opnet is teamed with.

"The network ought to be robust enough so that you can get it up and running as soon as possible after a disaster, without having to truck in additional equipment," Longo said.

The federal official overseeing IWN also noted Katrina's impact on the program.

"Katrina had a devastating effect on most public safety communications systems in southern Louisiana and Mississippi," Justice Chief Information Officer Vance Hitch, who is managing IWN, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Sept. 29. "Based on this experience, the IWN program is reassessing requirements for how the IWN is built and deployed."

DECISION COMING

Officials apparently are quickly wrapping up the reassessment. At an Oct. 26 industry conference, Hitch said that an IWN award will be made in the "next couple of months," according to Input Inc., a market research firm in Reston, Va. Input said the award likely would happen this month.

IWN has been in the works since 1998. The initiative was launched to meet radio spectrum rebanding requirements from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to cut in half the amount of radio spectrum used by federal, state and local public safety and law enforcement agencies.

IWN will replace separate legacy systems for about 80,000 agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service, among others. It also is expected to be interoperable with state and local first-responder radio systems.

The IWN program in October 2002 awarded $3 billion in indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts to six land mobile radio makers, including Motorola, that comply with the Project 25 suite of common standards for digital radios and equipment, developed by the telecom industry.

Early this year, government officials asked the four IWN prospective prime contractors to submit both a funding-limited deployment plan and an unrestricted funding approach for the new network.

The IWN proposals are anticipated to include Internet-based protocols, such as voice over IP and Internet-based data and video, and possibly even cell phones and personal wireless devices, along with conventional land mobile radio protocols.

However, first responders in recent years have been reluctant to entrust their mission-critical conversations to anything other than radio. Newer technologies such as VoIP have been met with skepticism.

"I think there will be continued resistance," said Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., and a member of the executive committee of Project Safecom, DHS' public safety interoperability unit. "We need to see [IP] systems that can accomplish the same functionality with the same redundancy and reliability as the existing systems. Everybody is going to be a little uncomfortable until there is a demonstration that it works the way people think it ought to work."

TESTS IN TIME

IWN has been conducting several demonstration projects, including ones in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Seattle. There is an expectation that if IWN is successful, it may create a path for greater interoperability among state and local first responders, in addition to linking federal agencies.

"There is potential for IWN to affect state and local technical decisions in this area," Input states in its assessment of IWN.

IWN's deployment thus far has been complicated by changing mission requirements, new technology development, evolving standards for performance and a resistance to any change of systems.

Factors that pose additional complexities for IWN include how it will comply with developing national standards for identity management, data and network security and privacy.

"You cannot ask a first responder to swipe an ID card into a radio before using the radio," said an IT executive who asked not to be named. "There are decisions to be made on identity management and IWN."

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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