Partners get ready for IWN

Chertoff pledges more progress on emergency communications interoperability

As the Justice Department pushes a major federal wireless network project through its initial implementation stage, questions remain about whether the project to provide interoperable communications systems for first responders can succeed.

Justice awarded General Dynamics C4 Systems a contract April 17 to build the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN). Planning for the project was the subject of a critical inspector general review less than a month ago.

Justice’s immediate plans for the network include implementations in the Gulf Coast, Oregon and eastern Washington regions. The department plans to spend more than $36 million in fiscal 2007 and another $31 million in 2008 on those implementations, according to the project’s business case.

“The IWN partner agencies are committed to achieving effective interoperability,” said Vance Hitch, Justice’s chief information officer. 
The IWN network is a joint project of Justice and the Homeland Security and Treasury departments. The three departments involved in IWN agreed to shoulder the development and the costs for the network, which could reach as much as $5 billion in the next 14 years.

Justice chose General Dynamics after a three-phase procurement process. The final phase included a competition with Lockheed Martin in which both contractors submitted prototype networks.

Funding was one of the IG’s major concerns about IWN. The IG wrote that the cost of maintaining outdated communications systems was sucking up funds intended for IWN. In 2006, for example, nearly two-thirds of the $772 million apportioned for the new network at Justice was spent on older systems.

“We are working with OMB and Congress to identify a strategy to provide a practical yet sustainable level of funding for the program,” said Elizabeth Clarke, a Justice spokeswoman.

The IG also criticized the program’s management structure, saying that Justice and DHS were pursuing separate wireless contracts instead of a joint solution. The IG warned that the split approach could undermine the program’s interoperability goals.

“The departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury need to repair the partnership and work together more closely,” said Glenn Fine, the IG.

Some industry leaders say they are confident that IWN can succeed. “There have been a lot of naysayers coming in on the more technically complex programs,” said Cary Bandler, co-chairman of the wireless subcommittee for the networks and telecommunications shared interest group at the Industry Advisory Council.

The genesis of the IWN program was the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Local law enforcement officials and first responders could not communicate with FBI agents and other federal employees. A Justice inventory analysis found that employees were using 24 different communications systems departmentwide.

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