Pointing talk

Joe Brandt



A year after a federal audit criticized Unisys Corp.'s performance on a Homeland Security Department information technology systems contract at major airports, company officials say they hastened the speed of work in 2006 and have finished the bulk of the job.

Even so, DHS' Transportation Security Administration has brought in another IT services provider, Telkonet Inc. of Germantown, Md., to extend and backfill IT networking and connectivity projects at airports. And questions about the original Unisys contract linger.

In February 2006, DHS' inspector general recommended rebidding the $1 billion Unisys contract to connect TSA IT networks at hundreds of airports. Instead, the department defended the project and its award of an additional $750 million bridge contract to Unisys to continue the work.

Although the Unisys deal is on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman's database of questionable federal contracts, suggesting possible abuse and mismanagement, it may instead be an example of the difficulties in pinpointing responsibility for a possibly wasteful government contract.

A critical audit does not necessarily mean poor performance on the contractor's part or the need for action by Congress, added Stephen Ryan, a partner in government and regulations at Manatt Phelps and Phillips. If the original scope of the work expanded and specifications changed midway, as TSA and Unisys contend, it may be difficult to prove that there was any overbilling, he said.

Unisys and TSA have defended the original contract and bridge. "Unisys is proud of the work and accomplishments we have performed for TSA, and TSA has given us consistently high marks for performance. TSA has said publicly that the issues raised in the inspector general's report had been addressed and that they consider the matter closed," said Lisa Meyer, a Unisys spokeswoman.

The project started in 2002, shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when TSA started to deploy significant security measures at airports. The agency awarded a $1 billion contract to Unisys, based in Blue Bell, Pa., to provide network connectivity at 429 airports, along with related IT services and support.

According to the IG's report, while TSA initially expected the work to extend through 2009, Unisys had spent the bulk of the funding, $834 million, by the end of fiscal 2005.

"By the beginning of fiscal year 2006, TSA spent most of the contract ceiling without receiving many of the contract deliverables critical to airport security and communications," the IG said. "The original funding is almost exhausted but many airports still do not have basic information technology and a telecommunications infrastructure."

TSA officials said they estimated the total costs would be from $3 billion to $5 billion, and they explained that the $1 billion contract amount was based on specific initial requirements.

Nonetheless, TSA awarded the $750 million bridge contract in December 2005 to Unisys to retain equipment leased under the current contract and allow for a transition to ongoing projects.

After the bridge contract's award, Unisys proceeded quickly to finish providing network connectivity to all 429 airports by Sept. 30, 2006, said Ed Vaccaro, partner in the homeland security practice at Unisys Federal Systems.

"There was a big push that occurred in the winter and summer of 2006," Vaccaro said. "Unisys did nearly 100 airports in 2006."

Telkonet offers wireless connectivity through electrical power lines. TSA brought the company in to provide additional networking services to airports.

Initially, Telkonet is installing its solution at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Dallas Love Field Airport. At an estimated cost of about $50,000 per airport, the contract could grow into the multiple millions of dollars, said Ron Pickett, chief executive officer of Telkonet.

"The first airports we are installing are intended to demonstrate the power line solution," Pickett said. "The goal is to put high-speed connectivity to all the offices and checkpoints."

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@1105govinfo.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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