Interagency radio pilot hits airwaves in Seattle

Building nationwide network will take five to 10 years

The departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury are testing a wireless network to serve federal law enforcement agencies nationwide.

'We are trying to finalize our acquisition strategy,' said Michael Duffy, deputy CIO for electronic government at Justice, the lead department.

The Integrated Wireless Network would be a common radio network capable of handling voice, data and multimedia for all federal law enforcement, first-response and homeland security agencies.

IWN would not serve state and local agencies but would have connectivity to them, Duffy said. The IWN Joint Program Office is working with local officials in 25 cities on connectivity plans.

Meanwhile, Acquisition Solutions Inc. of Oakton, Va., is managing the IWN pilot. For the pilot, Motorola Inc. is fielding a wireless network linking 15 agencies in and around Seattle.

Duffy said the program is underfunded and behind schedule, but agencies cannot afford to keep putting their money into existing analog radio systems.

'We've been running this program for three years and have very little to show for it,' he said. 'The clock is ticking.'

Broadened scope

IWN has three drivers: outdated systems, poor agency interoperability and heavy bandwidth needs. The program originally included only Justice and Treasury but expanded to DHS when the Customs and Immigration and Naturalization services moved to the new department last year.

Incompatible radio systems are a common problem for law enforcement and emergency services in all areas and at all levels of government.

'We have aging, and in some cases failing, radio systems,' Duffy said. Putting more money into stovepipe systems that cannot support current needs makes no sense, he said.

A 2002 engineering study estimated the cost of a nationwide wireless system at about $3 billion. That since has been whittled down to $2.6 billion, but 'that is not money we have in hand,' Duffy said.

Current DHS, Justice and Treasury budgets support only half of what will be needed to deploy the network in a timely manner, he said.

Narrowband required

Some elements of IWN already are in place. Justice's fiscal 2004 budget includes $32 million for narrowband radio equipment, principally along the Canadian and Mexican borders, but also in major cities such as New York.

Narrowband is necessary because of spectrum reallocation that requires federal users to halve their channel bandwidth, Duffy said.

It will take five to 10 years to build IWN. Acquisition Solutions is providing market research and acquisition support.

The network's procurement will have two phases, with a down-selection of qualified bidders before contracts are awarded. The joint program office expects to complete work on a statement of objectives within a month.

The statement will not specify technology. And Duffy added that the departments will consider going with a managed service. 'We want to state our requirements, and we want industry to propose solutions,' he said.

The Seattle pilot will follow the Project 25 standard for interoperable digital radio developed by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.

Participants in the pilot include DHS' customs and immigration bureaus, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Marshals Service, and state and local agencies.

Duffy said the pilot will be a proving ground for operations and program management as much as for technology.

'We've learned a lot of lessons already. The logistics management will be the make-or-break' issue for bidders, he said. 'We struggled with logistics management in Seattle. It has taken us a lot longer to stand up than we anticipated.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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