Customs primed to launch ACE

The U.S. Customs Service intends to launch this spring the first phase of its long-awaited Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), which will include online accounts and a data warehouse, officials said this week.

Although ACE will not be fully implemented until 2007, Customs officials are moving ahead swiftly with plans for a Web-based system to track imports and exports. It will give Customs officials at any port the ability to call up information from other border crossings.

"We at Customs are trying to bring a long list of existing legacy systems into a controlled environment where it would appear seamless to users," said S.W. "Woody" Hall, the chief information officer at Customs.

The fiscal 2003 budget, signed last week by President Bush, includes $313 million for ACE, a project expected to cost more than $1 billion by the time it is completed.

This initial phase will allow Customs workers to establish online accounts, view information and create summary reports about an import. Employee training and the first 40 trade accounts are slated to begin in May. Customs also will set up a modernization data warehouse to provide standardized data and trend analysis.

"ACE is just an unbelievably comprehensive undertaking. People think you just turn on a switch," said George Weise, a former Customs commissioner who is now vice president of global trade compliance at Vastera Inc., a global technology solutions company.

ACE will replace the aging Automated Commercial System (ACS), an 18-year-old paper-based system. ACS has been subject to brownouts, blackouts and other headaches for importers, slowing trade and costing manufacturers time and money at the border.

ACS, however, got new life since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Although it will be phased out in the next five years, it is being used with greater frequency to keep track of passenger and cargo manifests that are becoming a requirement for entry into the United States.

The cost of keeping it going — about $119 million in fiscal 2003 — is an acknowledged piece of the Customs modernization budget.

"There's only so much you can do with ACS. There are tremendous limitations," Weise said.

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