SBInet trawls for small-business partners
Contract winner Boeing says SBA firms slated for 40 percent of subcontract slots
- By David Hubler
- Oct 02, 2006
When Boeing won the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet contract last month, the giant defense and technology contractor said it was opening the door for small and disadvantaged businesses to share in a project potentially worth $2.5 billion or more. The project, if it succeeds, will close the country’s borders to potential terrorists and illegal immigrants.
Boeing’s winning proposal for the Secure Border Initiative calls for creating what DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff called “a 21st-century virtual fence,” a network of 1,800 towers 80 feet to 200 feet high along the United States’ northern and southern borders. They will have cameras, motion detectors and other electronic devices to locate and track intruders attempting to cross into the United States illegally.
In announcing Boeing’s selection, Chertoff said the initial indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract is worth $67 million and requires Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to construct a surveillance system along a 28-mile border strip near Tucson, Ariz., within three years.
Chertoff also addressed the concerns of lawmakers who fear DHS cannot manage such a large contract.
“One of the critical requirements that we laid down in this process of procurement was the government always had to have control of the driver’s seat,” Chertoff said. “We have a partner here. We look forward to working with the partner.”
Wayne Esser, director of advanced systems and security at Boeing, leads the SBInet project. He said Boeing has put together a team of nine partners, including the Centech Group, a small information technology solutions company based in Arlington, Va., that is working with DHS’ Customs and Border Protection.
That’s only the initial group of partners. In its statement announcing the contract win, Boeing pledged to “issue subcontracts to many additional companies, including small and minority-owned businesses, to bring the best available solutions to SBInet.”
Boeing formed a group of core contractors as part of its proposal.
Esser said he expects small businesses to account for at least 40 percent of the overall subcontractor team.
“We’ll be doing a tremendous amount of subcontracting on this opportunity as we go forward,” he said. “As much as we can, we will look for opportunities to make our procurements set aside for small and disadvantaged businesses.”
Boeing is not limiting the types of technology small businesses can offer the project. “Everything from tactical infrastructure to sensor technology, cameras and camera technology,” he said. “We’re not limiting them. It’s just a question of what kind of capabilities are out there.”
Esser said Boeing’s Supply Management and Procurement organization will help recruit small and disadvantaged businesses. SMP has “a huge database of companies that we maintain for this purpose. We’re adding to it daily, as you can imagine. My phone has been ringing off the wall,” he said.
Guy Timberlake, president of the American Small Business Alliance, said his organization will approach Boeing on behalf of the members.
But Chris Jahn, president of the Contract Services Association, cautioned small businesses against thinking of SBInet as an immediate windfall. DHS is going to implement the project slowly, he said.
“I think they’re going to make Boeing prove itself before they commit huge sums of money,” Jahn said.
SBInet “is so politically sensitive right now that DHS can’t afford to fail,” he added. “So it remains to be seen what the small-business opportunities are going to be.”
Esser said that in determining its small-business partners, Boeing will focus more on competitive procurement than on the cost of the technology being purchased.
“We hope the market will bring us the best value,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily always mean the lowest price. You have to look at cost/performance parameters.”
Value is important, he added, “and if you can get better value at a higher price, then it’s worth it.”
Some small businesses might come from Boeing’s alliance with the Chesapeake Innovation Center, a technology incubator in Annapolis, Md.
“We’ve been working with them now for a couple of months,” Esser said. “We will start aggressively looking at their stable of companies they work with, looking for new technologies that maybe are not fully developed yet. We’ll look at how we can accelerate that development.”
Environmental technology providers could also play a role. The surveillance towers will have to be configured to accommodate environmental concerns, especially in urban areas where aesthetics and environmental effects are issues, Esser said.
Despite SBInet’s large size, it is the type of project in which small businesses can do well, said Bob Guerra, of Guerra Kiviat, a government contracting consulting firm.
“It’s not like having to design a big mainframe computer or get a bunch of drones in the air to fly across the border,” he said. “It’s a management and process solution, and small businesses have a major contribution to make.”
But even as Boeing begins to build its team, some security experts have expressed doubts about the project. Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security, a managed security company in Mountain View, Calif., said SBInet can’t close all 6,000 miles of borders.
“My guess is it’s going to be more of a waste [of money] than a success,” Schneier said. “Securing our borders is just not going to happen.”
David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.