Wired for Trouble

Putting law enforcement officers in radio contact is easier said than done.

Interoperability, like perfection, is a simple word to say even if it rarely occurs. Some might even say the more the word is uttered the less it happens-and interoperability is a much discussed topic.

For more than a decade, in fact, federal law enforcers have tried to reach some solution that would allow them to communicate with colleagues across agency lines through land mobile radio. This summer, however, a Justice Department-led effort roused itself from apparent dormancy to select two companies-Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Dynamics Corp.-as finalists for the Integrated Wireless Network contract. IWN is an ambitious project to create interoperable wireless radio communications for 80,000 federal law enforcement personnel within the Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments. Program officials also aim to make broadband data capability available in the field. An industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity predicts the government will award the final contract in early 2007 for up to $10 billion over 15 years.

But with its focus on federal interoperability, IWN is unnecessary, says a dubious Florida law enforcement official who, like others, requested anonymity. Interoperability is most important for those running first toward a disaster, he says, adding that IWN is "a theory that's never going to work." In an emergency, federal agents "need to be able to come into my radio system and find out what the hell is going on," the official says.

"You have to understand that IWN is a law enforcement network; it is not necessarily a first responder network," responds an industry official. State and local officials won't have a huge presence in the day-to-day operations of IWN. "It's a different community," the official adds. While interoperability with state and local agencies is not the focus of IWN, it will incorporate the specifications of Project 25, a nationwide public-private standards-making body for land mobile radios. Plus, there's another federal program to address nationwide radio interoperability at that level: Project Safecom, a DHS-funded communication standards effort.

But, "in a perfect world, IWN would have been an extension of Safecom," to give those interoperability standards real teeth, says a former DHS official. "Safecom lacks the two things you need to get traction: It lacks money, and it lacks a powerful sponsor," the former official adds. Safecom officials are not part of the IWN bid selection committee, and the IWN request for proposals doesn't require strict adherence to Safecom standards.

Some disagree that Safecom and IWN should be tightly entwined. "The states and locals would have lost a lot of trust in the [Safecom] program, had it been that way," a federal official says. A complicated procurement such as IWN takes time and money, he says, adding that if the Safecom program office expended its resources there, local officials would dismiss it as just another fed-centric program. And anyway, the industry official notes, DHS funds Safecom at only about a fifth of Justice's annual wireless communications budget of $90 million.

Justice officials want a larger budget, too. For fiscal 2006, Congress lopped off $28 million from the department's request to fund legacy radio programs and IWN-leaving Justice with nearly $9 million less than the $98.7 million it requested. A Justice spokeswoman said in November that the $90 million "is sufficient to fully support the operation of the existing DoJ systems and allow . . . [IWN] to move forward."

But it's likely that achieving IWN's first challenge of interoperability will require an extensive, possibly expensive, refresh of land mobile radio communications. Congress is going to have to significantly ramp up annual spending if the program is to work, says another industry executive.

Then there's the challenge of developing technology. Law enforcement personnel already use commercial-service cell phones during emergency situations. But few are ready to give up their more traditional land mobile radios. Though an old technology, it's reliable in a way commercial cell service has never been, they say. It's not just the fear of dropped calls or patchy reception that gives government officials pause, it's the fear that should the general populace start overwhelming the circuits, police officers' communications would be drowned out. Though carriers offer priority service to law enforcement, they don't promise pre-emption.

Then there are other worries. Should a cell system go down, will commercial providers rush to fix it immediately, even in sparsely populated areas away from their main customers? "A private carrier will promise you anything," says Craig Jorgensen, project director for Project 25. "They're willing to say 'I'll guarantee this, I'll guarantee that,' but when it comes to delivering, they fail."

But staying with land mobile radio won't carry the government into the future, says a telephone company executive. "If they want to receive broadband, then you migrate them to a cellular device," he says. There are solutions to reliability worries, the executive adds. Some cellular infrastructure could be air- or space-borne, and land mobile radio and cellular devices can be integrated into a single hand-held unit.

The real worry is that the government might decide to award a single IWN contract, the executive says. Few would disagree that its track record of managing single-award large procurements is checkered. Should the remaining two competitors offer roughly matching solutions, they should both be hired, the executive says: Competition would keep IWN viable over the long term. Otherwise, interoperability might remain the much- talked-about chimera it has been.

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