TSA readies network pact

Asked to build an agency from scratch in a matter of months, the Transportation Security Administration plans to award a five- to 10-year contract for a nationwide information technology network infrastructure that could be worth $1 billion or more, according to sources.

Details of the plan are sketchy because TSA has yet to issue a draft statement of objectives outlining the IT infrastructure. The draft, to be released this month, is expected to include requirements for data centers, seat management and telecommunications.

"We are basically taking a brand-new federal function and putting them in an environment where they have no infrastructure — not just IT, no offices and desks," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., a telecommunications and IT consulting firm based in Jenkintown, Pa.

Since its creation in November, the fledgling agency has been constructing its organization from the ground up. Its actions have been largely guided by the rules of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, particularly the costly mandate that checked bags be screened by explosives- detection machines by Dec. 31, said Kenneth Mead, Transportation Department inspector general, speaking at a House Appropriations Committee Transportation Subcommittee hearing last month.

To get the job done, TSA received $2.4 billion for fiscal 2002, and the Bush administration has asked Congress to double the agency's budget for fiscal 2003. Already, TSA has requested $4.4 billion in emergency supplemental funding. And it will probably run out of money by the end of this month, Mead said.

The Transportation Subcommittee hasn't taken a position on TSA's IT agenda, because it has been focused on screening equipment and on staffing issues related to fiscal 2002 spending, and it is still waiting for the agency to provide details on its 2003 budget, a committee staffer said.

"We haven't really looked at IT yet," the staffer said. "We recognize they need it to fulfill their mission."

Still, TSA is slated to select a vendor in June, the same month the subcommittee has set as a last date for receiving its 2003 funding information, according to sources.

TSA officials are considering awarding the task order under DOT's Information Technology Omnibus Procurement contract or the National Institutes of Health's Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners contract, a source said.

TSA officials declined to comment.

The push to get the contract out concerns some. "How can they be preparing to award a billion-dollar contract while at the same time the Office of Homeland Security is saying it has not completed the national strategy?" asked John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Rockville, Md.-based PSComm LLC, which advises state and local governments on public safety and government operations.

But such independent and advanced action should be expected in a national crisis, Suss said. Key government groups such as the Homeland Security Office and TSA are working in parallel rather than sequentially, he added.

By all accounts, the project has one primary advantage that may help the agency succeed: TSA doesn't have any legacy systems that must be considered when building the networks. "From a technology perspective, that makes it very simple," Cohen said. "Not having something you have to rebuild puts you in a great position to do something right."

Before getting started on the infrastructure, however, the agency should lay out its enterprise architecture, said John Kost, vice president of worldwide public-sector research for Gartner Inc.

In April, TSA awarded a $16.1 million, sole-source contract to Unitech Inc. to complete a model for a standard airport architecture, which will be rolled out at agency headquarters and 17 airports, including Baltimore/Washington International Airport, by November.

Unitech works on the architecture and design, but the infrastructure vendor's job is to replicate this across the nation's 429 airports, according to Manuel Miranda, the company's vice president of training and simulation.

TSA wants to establish a secure network to link the agency headquarters and all airports; to provide e-mail, information sharing and training; and to eventually incorporate surveillance cameras, security equipment and biometric technology, according to Unitech officials.

The agency must first determine how all of that will "glue together," Kost said. For instance, computer-assisted passenger prescreening systems, which identify people for further scrutiny, will reside on the infrastructure, Suss said. TSA will have to make this available to other federal, state and local systems in order to exchange data with the appropriate agencies, such as the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"They're looking to expand it significantly and integrate a system that can be used to basically profile passengers, pulling together from a much wider array of databases," Suss said. "This kind of application causes all kinds of challenges."

One big challenge is interoperability. "All of this data has to be integrated in a sensible way," he said.

Miranda said TSA is talking about a traditional IT infrastructure. "They're also looking at wireless solutions, voice communications. A lot of this they haven't decided yet," he said.

Suss suggested that the agency consider taking some nontraditional approaches. "They may not have time to put in place a traditional IT infrastructure," he said.

Others think TSA should slow down.

"The way that things are being done now, at the end of the day, we run the risk of spending billions of dollars and being no safer that we were before Sept. 11," Cohen said.

***

TSA's future

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed by President Bush Nov. 19, 2001, established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and charged it with protecting the nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.

"The challenge of building from scratch is where to start," said John Kost, vice president of worldwide public-sector research for market watcher Gartner Inc.

To start the process, TSA officials this month plan to release a statement of objectives for the agency's information technology infrastructure. The infrastructure will house all telecommunications and IT systems, including e-mail, training and data warehouses, sources said.

"TSA is basically building an infrastructure from the ground up," said Manuel Miranda, vice president of training and simulation at Unitech Inc., which has a contract with TSA to complete a standard airport architecture model.

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