Justice wireless network struggling, IG says

Despite spending more than $356 million over 10 years, the Justice Department’s program to replace outdated radios for tens of thousands of federal agents has not achieved its initial goals and its future is uncertain, according to a new report from the Justice Office of Inspector General.

The Integrated Wireless Network was conceived in 2004 as a plan to replace old and deteriorating Land Mobile Radio systems with an interoperable radio network for Justice enforcement agencies. The network was to be used by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Marshals Service, among others.

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The program expanded to include 81,000 agents nationwide at a cost of about $5 billion, including agents from the Homeland Security and Treasury departments.

However, plans for the interoperable network and radios have been revised several times due to funding limitations and uncertainty. DHS dropped out in 2008.

Overall, the IWN program has not been effective at fulfilling the radio communication modernization, interoperability and spectrum efficiency needs of Justice, states the report, which is dated January 2012. Some details have been redacted by the inspector general’s office due to law enforcement sensitivity.

“As a result, the department’s law enforcement components are still using old and often obsolete equipment,” the report concluded. “There is limited interoperability between the components and with other law enforcement agencies. The IWN program continues to struggle with funding limitations that have resulted in multiple revisions to the plan and a significant reduction in the planned nationwide implementation.”

In addition, Justice has not been successful in meeting a Commerce Department directive from 1993 ordering that federal agencies reduce spectrum use by half by 2008, the report said.

“The department planned to comply with this mandate as part of the Integrated Wireless Network program’s Land Mobile Radio system upgrade,” the inspector general wrote. “However, three years after the conversion deadline, insufficient program funding and logistical problems continue to negatively affect the department’s ability to comply.”

To date, the effects of noncompliance have been minimal, the report added.

Under a revised agreement adopted by Justice, DHS and Treasury in 2008, the cost of deploying the integrated wireless network was projected at $1.2 billion over six years.

In 2009, Justice implemented the first phase in the Washington, D.C. region. However, funding cuts have limited additional deployments and will necessitate further revisions to the plans, the report said.

Moving forward, Justice officials should explore possibilities including 3G and 4G Long Term Evolution mobile technologies along with the National Public Safety Broadband Plan, the inspector general suggested.

“Many believe that Land Mobile Radio systems will be replaced by some type of secure broadband system. However, technology that will fulfill the needs of law enforcement agencies has yet to be refined,” the report said. “There is still a need for an improved communications system, and while IWN may no longer be the best solution, a solution is desperately needed.”

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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