Vying for VISIT

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The race officially is on for the government's most anticipated-and potentially lucrative-homeland security contract.

Officials announced last week at a briefing for technology executives that the much-anticipated US VISIT program to track every foreigner crossing American borders will begin revving up at the end of the year. For the first several months, VISIT will rely on existing government systems at ports of entry to take fingerprints and photographs of 35 million annual visitors. But by May 2004, the Homeland Security Department plans to award a contract to one company that will ensure a new system is operating at every border crossing and all air and seaports by the end of 2005.

The presumed leaders of the pack for the multi-billion-dollar VISIT contract are among the usual suspects for massive government tech projects. Teams forming now led by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Computer Sciences Corp. are the favorites. The smaller IT and biometrics firms whose technology will make up the backbone of the project are busy sizing up the tech titans and courting the ones they think have the best shot at winning.

The big firms are in such a sweet spot because of their past experience. The ace up Lockheed's sleeve is its work integrating the Immigration and Naturalization Service's fingerprint identification system with one housed at the FBI. Northrop Grumman has built a demonstration center for new homeland security products that has attracted considerable buzz among smaller firms. And CSC is already working for Homeland Security under the successor to an INS technology services contract.

But smaller technology manufacturers may be the big winners, because even a small share of the contract could eclipse their current annual revenues. One shoo-in for VISIT has already emerged-Identix of Minnetonka, Minn., the only company that makes mobile biometric readers that scan two fingerprints. VISIT will start out taking two fingerprints, and readers will need to be hand-carried in some cases, particularly to ships at sea so passengers can be scanned before they disembark.

Identix chief executive officer Joseph Attick has been analyzing the scope of the project, which is bigger than any border control effort the government has ever attempted. Attick estimates that there are 288 million border crossings by foreigners every year. And that's just entries. For the first time, the government also will track exits, and Attick presumes a corresponding number of crossings in that category. In total, then, VISIT will process nearly 600 million transactions every year, a number Attick calls "phenomenal."

The number of crossings only tells half the story of VISIT's giant scale. Attick says new government studies show that if processing through VISIT tacked on an extra nine seconds wait time for each person coming across the U.S. border crossing with Mexico at San Ysidro, Calif., the average queue would last for 11 hours. That number is unacceptable to both government and industry, and it confirms long-held fears that a U.S. entry-exit system could cripple cross-border traffic and have a devastating effect on international trade. Federal officials told industry representatives at last week's briefing that crossings under VISIT can add no more than one or two seconds of additional time.

Buying Time

Satellite communications companies are on a mission to change the way the military buys time on their birds.

The satellite industry wants the Defense Department to buy time in bigger chunks and through long-term contracts, more like their commercial customers. That would help Defense better manage the substantial bandwidth it purchases now in one- to two-year deals, executives say. But it would also buoy a flagging satellite industry at a time when revenues from corporate, broadcast and cable television customers are lackluster.

Defense normally uses short-term contracts to buy bandwidth during military operations, said David Helfgott, chief executive officer of satellite manager Americom Government Systems, a subsidiary of Washington-based SES Americom. Industry wants more predictability than that, Helfgott explained, and it could come from contracts that might last up to ten years. Helfgott estimates the total government market at half a billion dollars annually, with about 50 percent of that revenue coming from Defense.

The department pays for much of its satellite time out of a fund controlled by the Defense Information Systems Agency. However, several satellite executives have said that government buyers aren't aware of some purchasing alternatives-for example, that time can be bought in some cases through the General Services Administration's supply schedules.

Now, executives are spreading the word to their customers that they need not be tied to the DISA piggy bank. In the process, they're promoting the alternative buying methods to potential new customers, such as the Homeland Security Department.

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