Appropriators question funding for emergency wireless project

Senators express concern about "lagging progress, as well as the recurring costs of the conversion" to narrowband operations.

A multi-agency project aimed at creating a wireless communications network that would connect police and other emergency responders across jurisdictions could lose a chunk of its federal allowance in fiscal 2008, according to House and Senate appropriations committee reports.

The Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments already have spent $195 million on the program, which could have a $5 billion price tag by 2021, according to some estimates. It has also gained the attention of Justice's inspector general.

The initiative would update outdated land-mobile radio systems by incorporating cellular telephones and walkie-talkies to provide reliable, secure wireless capabilities for 81,000 agents nationwide. But a March IG report drew attention to its "disparate funding mechanisms" and inadequate documentation.

The integrated wireless network, known as IWN, is currently one of the most expensive items in Justice's information technology basket and it is at high risk of failure, the report stated. Unless the deficiencies are addressed, such a system "may not be developed and the resulting separate agency communications systems may not be adequate in the event of another terrorist attack or natural disaster."

The House-passed appropriations bill, H.R. 3093, would fund the project at $81.3 million -- the same as the agency's budget estimate. But the Senate measure, S. 1745, would provide $76.3 million. The program got $89 million in fiscal 2007.

In the Senate committee report, lawmakers expressed concern about "lagging progress, as well as the recurring costs of the conversion" to narrowband operations. The panel also noted that an aging infrastructure has been an impediment to implementation.

Despite six years of development and a heap of money, the project resulted in some test systems, but law enforcement agents have received little by way of new, secure, compliant radio equipment, the IG report said. The program's collapse "would represent a significant missed opportunity" for federal, state and local agencies, officials added.

In Justice's response, the agency admitted IWN "has clearly not progressed as rapidly as desired" but said the report did not accurately reflect progress that has been made. Justice bought thousands of new digital radios and launched interoperability channels in 10 cities that facilitate communication between counterparts in federal, state and local agencies.

Pennsylvania Democrat Christopher Carney, chairman of the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee told Technology Daily that "the 'I' in IWN must have meaning if this system is going to work." The program will never be integrated if coordination is not improved, he said.

But federal agencies that would benefit from IWN "are suffering from the same frustrations as local public-safety agencies when it comes to replacing obsolete communications systems with reliable ones," said Charlottesville, Va., Fire Chief Charles Werner, a member of the Homeland Security Department's SafeCom executive committee.

"Agencies have very significant communications needs today," but preparedness dollars are dwindling, he said. "I truly hope they find a way to meet their communications needs -- they are a very deserving group of dedicated federal agents."