Boeing, SBInet reach critical phase
The success of the next segment could determine the future of the multibillion-dollar project
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Dec 04, 2008
Two years since its inception,
the first permanent
segment of the Homeland
SBInet surveillance system
is about to be installed in southern
Arizona, and the stakes could not
SBInet, part of the Secure Border
Initiative, is a virtual border fence
composed of cameras, radars and
other sensors strung on towers and
linked to operations centers. It is one
of the most ambitious projects ever
launched by DHS and also one of the
At a projected cost of $8 billion for
the system on the U.S./Mexico border,
SBInet has been praised as offering
a decisive edge to border protection,
but it is also distrusted as experimental.
The prototype Project 28
now operating in the Arizona desert
is more effective than what was used
in the past but is less than what was
Although it has made major strides
in two years, SBInet still must prove
itself technologically and politically,
homeland security experts say.NEW LEADER, FRESH START
Mark Borkowski, who started work in
October as SBI executive director at
the Customs and Border Protection
agency, said he is evaluating the project
and expects to make a decision by
summer 2009 on whether to renew
Boeing Co.'s SBInet contract when it
expires Sept. 30, 2009.
In the meantime, Borkowski said
he intends to raise SBInet's budget to
$380 million for towers, sensors and
project management in fiscal 2009.
"I am somewhat more optimistic
today than I was a month ago,"
Borkowski said. "The foundation is
sound, but we need to connect the
"Where SBInet is concerned, year
2009 is critical," said Richard Stana,
director of homeland security and
justice issues at the Government
Accountability Office. "You are coming
in with a new executive director
and new administration. There are
two new segments coming on ?
Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 ? and if these do
not work well and they cannot fully
deploy in 2009 as planned, it will
raise a lot of questions. Do we want to
restructure, go with another contractor
or replan it?"FIGHTING SKEPTICISM
With the Obama administration and
a new Congress about to take office,
SBInet must overcome lingering
skepticism. Rep. Bennie Thompson
(D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland
Security Committee, has not been shy
about expressing his disappointment
Thompson titled a recent hearing
on the program mismanagement,
Missteps and Missed Benchmarks:
Why the Virtual Fence Has Not
Become a Reality."
Thompson was especially vocal
about his doubts when the project
stalled in mid-2007 because of delays,
apparent miscommunications, shifts
in expectations and negative assessments
from Border Patrol users attributed to a lack of user input from
the start. DHS and Boeing officials
say those problems have been
Boeing is testing the updated, permanent
SBInet towers and system
under outdoor conditions in a New
Mexico laboratory before deploying
them in March 2009.
"I have a lot more confidence in the
system now," said Jack Chenevey,
Boeing's SBInet program manager.
"I'm very confident this will be a force
CBP accepted the prototype Project
28 in February, and it has been operating
in the Arizona desert since then.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff
credits SBInet technology for helping
reduce the number of people apprehended
for illegally crossing the border
in recent months.DELAYS TURN TO ADVANTAGE
Although the permanent SBInet towers
were initially due to be constructed
starting in July in the Tucson-1
segment in Arizona, CBP put that
work on hold because of problems
securing federal land permits from
the Interior Department and other
The SBI program office worked
hard to meet its widely advertised
schedule for constructing physical
fencing and vehicle barriers at the
In recent weeks, the final land permits
were obtained for Tucson-1 and
have almost been completed for the
Ajo-1 segment, Borkowski said.
Boeing is preparing to do the final,
integrated system testing and refining
of SBInet, including the technology
that integrates the sensor information
into a common view, at an outdoor
facility in New Mexico. The company
has built three surveillance towers
and a communications tower at the
"The system is so much more
robust than before," Chenevey said.
"The system, before we deploy it, will
be highly tested."
Experts say the real proof will be
the first permanent deployment in
early 2009. Boeing and CBP officials
say they have improved the technology,
testing and user feedback to avoid
On the other hand, GAO officials
outlined several management challenges
for SBInet in September that
have not yet been addressed, including
a need for CBP to prepare a technology
evaluation and requirements
fulfillment process for the entire system.
Next year could bring a make-or-
Whether the project continues at
the current pace will depend on assessments by CBP, Congress and
the new administration.
"I get the sense that Customs and
Border Protection is waiting out the
clock," said James Jay Carafano, a
senior research fellow at the Heritage
Foundation. "They have made a good-faith
effort, and they have some numbers
they can point to showing the prototype
is working well. They are punting
it to the next administration."
"There are still management
issues," said David Van Slyke, an associate
professor of public administration
at Syracuse University who has
studied procurement at DHS. "I don't
know if they will get bogged down.
My sense is that they are resolving the
issues."THE WORLD WATCHES
Governments in other parts of the
world are working on similar surveillance
technologies, including those of
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are
creating sensor systems to help safeguard
their oil fields.
"Does the United States want to
wait until the technologies are proven
in two to five years, or does it want to
lead?" asked one SBInet vendor who
asked not to be identified.
Given the global financial crisis,
federal funding is expected to become
tighter in coming years.
"The basic principle of building a
virtual fence has been accepted," said
Rey Koslowski, associate professor of
political science and public policy at
the University at Albany, N.Y., and an
expert on border issues.
"If we find out it is more difficult
than we expected, enthusiasm may
However, many experts say SBInet
promises to be a more effective way to
monitor thousands of miles of remote
"There is a need for these technologies,"
Carafano said. "In some places,
physical barriers don't make sense.
Certainly, the technologies have
merit."Alice Lipowicz (email@example.com)
is a staff writer at Washington Technology.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.