Demand grows for government-only computer network

They said it could not, and should not, be done. A call made after Sept. 11, 2001, for a closed government intranet, impenetrable to outside cyber attacks, withered after experts balked at the potential cost and said it would not include key non-federal players in the event of an attack.

But two years later, Sprint built it anyway, and now demand is rising among federal agencies for the company's "Peerless IP," a "government grade" Internet-protocol-based intranet that in many ways resembles the original GovNet proposal.

"The thought was, 'Gee, I don't think this could ever be done,'" said Anthony D'Agata, vice president and general manager of Sprint's government systems division. But the Sprint technology is "pretty consistent" with the GovNet idea, he said.

The Bush administration has been pushing all federal agencies to utilize technology to help them communicate more freely, according to D'Agata. There always was interest in Internet protocol technology, but there was concern about the security of information traversing the system. So Sprint decided to create a private network for government, D'Agata said.

The key to Sprint's system is that it has no connection to the public Internet, so there can be no possible intrusions, D'Agata said in an interview. The absence of links, "peering points" or gateways in the system allows agencies to communicate within themselves and with specific agencies also on the network. It is both physically and virtually private, he said.

Since the late summer launch of Peerless IP, Sprint has been awarded all three federal contracts for Internet protocol network services from the National Guard, the FBI and an agency the company cannot disclose. Sprint is hopeful about several more bids in the pipeline in coming months, D'Agata said.

Agencies can modify the system that Sprint provides to add levels of security for particular information, he said. The key question each agency must decide in joining the network is what information it wants to share and at what level.

Richard Clarke, former director of the White House Office of Cyber Security, proposed GovNet shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks as a way to ensure that the government could communicate with less vulnerability to attack.

But skeptics such as Scott Charney, a former senior cyber-crime official at the Justice Department, pronounced GovNet too costly and questioned the need for a closed network. He said the government must include the other actors who would respond to a terrorist attack, such as emergency, state and local authorities. Charney suggested a focus on better authentication tools and encryption.

The Bush administration decided to seek a minimal amount of funding for GovNet and otherwise put the idea away for further study. Then early in 2003, after noticing increased agency interest in Internet-protocol-based products and services, Sprint unveiled its new system. And the contracts have been signed ever since.

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