IWN, Secure Border proponents at odds over networks' implementation, compatability
- By Alice Lipowicz
- May 12, 2006
Homeland Security Department border agents are mired in a debate over how best to make compatible two multibillion-dollar wireless networks.
The question is: Will the agents end up juggling two radios to do their jobs, or will both networks be accessible from a single radio? It is not a hypothetical issue.
As the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), a joint project of DHS and the Justice and Treasury departments, and the Secure Border Initiative-Net move toward implementation, government and industry officials are questioning how to ensure the systems are interoperable and not duplicative. Contract awards are expected later this year.
IWN will link, on a single voice and data network, 80,000 federal agents nationwide, including FBI, federal marshals, customs and border control agents.
Secure Border will integrate cameras and sensors as a comprehensive surveillance network along U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada and will be used by border control agents.
In a worst-case scenario, if IWN and Secure Border networks are incompatible, border control agents would have separate radios for each system.'Major concern'
The request for proposals for Secure Border issued last month states that the contractor should strive for interoperability with IWN. However, it also said: "The deployment and/or capability of IWN may not be synchronized or sufficient to support SBI-Net."
Contractors said they have received little specific information about the interoperability goals. At least one prospective contractor is optimistic, however.
"It's not too big a stretch to look at IWN and Secure Border and see the possibility for some synergies," said Lee Wright, director of national communications and homeland security for General Dynamics Corp.
Even so, it is unclear how those compatibilities may be achieved in two separate programs with distinct missions and management.
"Interoperability is a major concern," said Larry Reagan, vice president of government solutions for Price Systems Inc. in Mount Laurel, N.J. "As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, you don't want to have agents needing to use two radios and a cell phone."
Both IWN and Secure Border will use radio spectrum, but there are questions as to whether they will share bandwidth or each have an assigned spectrum. Which program would have priority on a shared system is another concern.
Getting sufficient spectrum quickly will be a major challenge.
"I would not be surprised if knowing which program gets spectrum first dictates a course of action for both programs," said Chris Josephs, homeland security director for the global government solutions group at Cisco Systems Inc.
Both projects are moving forward. Secure Border officials asked for proposals to be submitted by May 8, and an award is expected in July for a contract that could be worth $2 billion over several years. Companies eligible to bid include Boeing Co., Ericsson Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co.
Meanwhile, a second-phase award to two or three contractors is expected by the end of May for IWN, which may cost up to $10 billion over 15 years, according to a Justice Department official who asked to be anonymous. Teams competing are led by General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Motorola Inc. and Raytheon.
Under the second phase, there will be demonstration projects before a single contractor is chosen for full implementation, which will come under the third phase.
Official updated information is scant. "We are on an acquisition blackout, and no one is talking, and no one on the outside knows anything because no one is talking," said a DHS official who asked not to be identified.Working as one
Nevertheless, insiders said there is much discussion about how to ensure that the networks will be compatible, and opinions vary as to which program will take the lead role.
IWN, planned since 1998, may be the first of the two programs deployed nationwide. If that happens, IWN's large network could provide a backbone for Secure Border. As a result, Secure Border may not need as extensive a network as originally planned.
"In the optimal solution, IWN's design is firmed up, and it is first implemented in a border region," said an executive who is involved in the discussions but asked, because of the media blackout, not to be identified. "SBI-Net would then implement the same IWN solution. ? You don't want to have duplicative solutions."
But that scenario is flawed, especially inasmuch as DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has made Secure Border Initiative a top priority and is pushing for rapid deployment. Chertoff has promoted Secure Border on dozens of occasions, while IWN receives little publicity.
This suggests to some insiders that Secure Border may take a lead role and become a "system of systems," encompassing IWN and possibly other Coast Guard, customs and immigration networking projects. Secure Border's network would be more robust, and IWN possibly would be scaled down. In recent years, IWN has been amended, delayed and underfunded.
"Secure Border would be integrating several systems," said an executive who is familiar with the programs and also asked to remain anonymous to comply with the blackout. "IWN could be delayed or slowed down until they get the full integration right." He said IWN needs to avoid a midstream redesign of the type that contributed to the collapse in 2005 of the FBI's Virtual Case File IT project.
Federal officials said they are addressing compatability concerns. "What will happen is the SBI-Net and IWN proposals will come in," and then both will be readjusted for interoperability, the Justice Department official said.
With several of the same large systems integrators pursuing both IWN and Secure Border contracts, it's possible that one integrator will be chosen for both.
"If you have one vendor, you can make sure it is all integrated," Reagan said. "With two vendors, though, you have more potential for true cost competition."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.