Customs seeks importers to test a new shipments portal

Through the portal, importers will be able to set up accounts that will contain information such as who they are, what commodities they import, schedules for importing and other data, said Customs' Charles Armstrong.

The Customs Service is breathing life into its multibillion-dollar modernization project by testing a Web portal that will let importers access their Customs data on the Web.

The service is looking for 40 importers to test the portal, beginning in October. The pilot will be the first phase in the implementation of the Automated Commercial Environment, said Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs Modernization Office.

'The Web portal will be our focal point and starting point,' Armstrong said. 'We will be at a point where we can start testing the enterprise architecture.'

Through the portal, importers will be able to set up an account with information on their identity, what commodities they import, schedules for importing and other data specific to their transactions, he said.

Secure data

With these accounts, importers will be able to access data on their shipments online. The portal also is intended to let users manage and disseminate the data securely.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division of the IT Association of America, a Washington trade association, said the industry supports Customs' modernization plan.

'We are encouraging them to implement the plan as soon as possible,' she said. 'Everyone would like to see the portal set up as soon as possible.'

Last April, the service awarded a $1.3 billion, 15-year contract to IBM Corp. to be the prime contractor for its modernization project.

ACE will replace the 17-year-old Automated Commercial System.

ACS depends heavily on paper and manual input and has had several costly shutdowns because of data overload. Through ACE, the service hopes to manage the nation's imports and exports more efficiently.

For instance, through the portal, companies will have to file documents on shipments coming into the country only once a month, rather than filing papers on every shipment.

Customs will be able to evaluate aggregated trade information, which today is analyzed transaction by transaction.

Officials will be able to pull up information about any importer and get an overview of the importer's business and transactions.

The modernization effort is being run by IBM's global services unit and a team of subcontractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va.; Computer Sciences Corp.; KPMG International of New York; Lockheed Martin Corp.; and Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services Inc. of Washington.

Customs will test the portal for two years. The agency will add account holders as the project progresses and will add features such as more information about importers, Armstrong said.

Importers who participate in the pilot must also join in the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, an effort to strengthen border security.

Armstrong said the service is considering several commercial products to operate the portal and a public-key infrastructure.

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