SBInet faces construction delays

The Homeland Security Department probably will not resume construction of its multibillion-dollar border-surveillance system until January 2009 even if federal land permits are approved before then, a spokesman said today.

Budget concerns and the need to test the technology in the laboratory are likely to delay SBInet’s deployment for four or five months, said Michael Friel, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

The agency has completed about half of the 670 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers it aims to build this year, and agency officials are considering whether to redirect SBInet funding to cover the dramatically rising costs of steel, fuel and other items involved in fence construction in the Southwestern United States, Friel said.

“Considering the need to test the technology [for SBInet] and to complete that testing, the idea is that the deployment dollars set aside for SBInet could be used to help offset the fencing costs,” Friel said.

Work was scheduled to begin this summer on the first permanent SBInet towers, which would hold cameras, radar units, sensors and communications equipment. The permanent towers would replace mobile structures erected during the 28-mile prototype phase of the project in Arizona, which was completed in February.

On Aug. 19, CBP officials confirmed that they had ordered prime contractor Boeing to halt work on SBInet’s virtual fence until the agency received land-use and environmental permissions from the Interior Department.

Three days later, the agency received a partial go-ahead when Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was granting preliminary approval for five SBInet towers on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Final permission could come as early as Sept. 8.

Seventeen towers are planned for the Tucson-1 segment of the SBInet project that was to begin construction this summer, Friel said. Four towers are already built. A second segment, called Ajo-1, calls for 11 towers.

Although the permits could be approved soon, CBP and Boeing intend to spend the next several weeks or months testing the networks, communications and sensors in a laboratory setting and evaluating how well they work together, Friel said. Formal system testing will follow the preliminary tests.

“We are working to complete those tests prior to deployment,” Friel said. “No date has been set, but we are looking at January 2009.”

The need for laboratory tests was discussed earlier this year after the deployment of the 28-mile prototype phase of the project. Border patrol officials and federal auditors expressed concern about some features of the prototype system, which were delayed and did not work as well as anticipated.

SBInet is one of DHS’ most ambitious technology projects. Its ultimate goal is to secure the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, and its costs could exceed $30 billion.

The Bush administration has requested $775 million for SBInet in its fiscal 2009 budget.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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