DHS prepares to deploy virtual fence

The Homeland Security Department’s SBInet border surveillance system is undergoing cleanup of minor software glitches this month, and permanent construction will begin along the border of Arizona and Mexico by late March or early April, the program’s executive director said today.

SBInet is a roughly $8 billion virtual fence to be built along the border of the United States and Mexico. The system is comprised of cameras, radars, sensors, and communications equipment strung on towers and transmitting information to border patrol agents in operations centers.

DHS performed SBInet system qualification tests in December in an outdoor laboratory facility in New Mexico that uncovered several small software bugs, said Mark Borkowski, executive director for the Secure Border Initiative. SBI oversees SBInet as well as other projects designed to reduce illegal immigration.

DHS and prime contractor Boeing Co. set up real-time towers, cameras, radar, ground sensors, communications and common operating picture for the tests. It was the first time the permanent tower and sensor configuration has been operationally tested for more than 24 continuous hours, Borkowski said.

Those tests revealed several software bugs, including minor problems related to operation of the system during high wind conditions in the desert, he said. The cameras have minor image stabilization technical problems that must be fixed, he added.

“They all seem to be easily fixable and should be in place by the end of February. If we are successful with that, we will go full tilt into deployment,” Borkowski told Federal Computer Week.

The testing was the first time the computer system was on for a couple of days, so it was anticipated that software glitches might be discovered then, Borkowski added. “It performed well fundamentally, but it did crash due to bugs. We will be working on it,” he said.

Borkowski, who took over as executive director in November 2008, said the goal is to complete construction of the first permanent segments of SBInet named Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 by late summer. Both segments together span about 60 miles. A 28-mile prototype SBInet has been operating in Arizona since February 2008.

Border patrol agents have been involved in design and testing of the permanent configuration, and once the Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 segments are deployed, the agents will begin operational field-testing of those systems. A decision on deployment of SBInet across the rest of Arizona will likely take place by year’s end, Borkowski said.

Borkowski’s budget for SBInet and physical fencing is $770 million for fiscal 2009. The Senate economic stimulus package contains an additional $200 million for those initiatives.

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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