OMB reins in wireless

The Office of Management and Budget intends to reduce the federal government's $1.5 billion investment in wireless telecommunications by forcing agencies to consolidate redundant projects.

OMB does not want to terminate projects, but instead work with agencies to restructure and combine them where possible, said Mark Forman, OMB's associate director of information technology and e-government.

Forman singled out the Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications program, or Project SafeCom, which is designed to ensure that federal, state and local safety personnel can communicate during emergencies. Project SafeCom is one of 24 e-government initiatives promoted by OMB.

A second project under review is the Public Safety Wireless Network, a joint program between the Treasury and Justice departments to replace aging land mobile radio systems used by 70,000 law enforcement agencies, among other goals.

Federal officials began restructuring the projects in May, Forman said. "It continues to evolve as we learn what works," he said last week at the Interagency Resources Management Conference in Hershey, Pa. "Most of the evolution is dealing with state and local governments."

Ronald Miller, chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is to detail to the Office of Homeland Security, said he agreed with Forman's plans.

"It is imperative to develop interoperability for public safety officials," Miller said, instead of spending billions on individual wireless processes.

Wireless communication has become a major issue after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and federal, state and local governments are struggling to create an integrated approach for first responders.

"There is an extraordinary amount of redundancy in wireless system networks at all levels of government," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc.

"There are also very serious issues related to interoperability," he said. "We see time and again that in emergency situations, whether it be [Sept. 11] or a natural disaster, that different systems run by different governmental entities...[can't] communicate with each other."

Suss said that although Forman has accurately pinpointed the problem, finding a solution may be extremely difficult and costly.

Nevertheless, Forman told the Hershey conference that e-government initiatives are progressing as government officials work toward a citizen- centric system. Among the ideas:

* Electronic form filing for the trucking industry, expected to be operational by December. It would enable truckers to file all regulatory forms to federal, state and local governments online.

* A similar project for the food industry, still in development.

* A project involving the State, Defense and Commerce departments to make it easier for exporters to file required documents online.

Forman said the urgency behind the government's homeland security initiative has only made e-government more essential. For the fiscal 2004 budget, Forman said he is not looking for a cap on IT spending, but "much smarter use of investments...[and] some consolidation in the back office."

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