GSA fills wireless gap

Agency plans to modify telecom contracts to address homeland security needs

May 2001 NWCIP presentation

Related Links

PACMERS site

With homeland security underscoring the importance of wireless communications among law enforcement, the military and first responders, the General Services Administration is examining modifications to its governmentwide telecommunications contract to support those technology needs, officials announced earlier this month.

GSA's Federal Technology Service provides much of the basic communications infrastructure for the federal government through its FTS 2001 and Metropolitan Area Acquisition contracts. So it is a natural place to look for support for the many wireless communications interoperability programs under way throughout government, said Karen Hogan, deputy chief information officer at the Commerce Department.

The exact modifications to the FTS 2001 contract, announced by FTS Commissioner Sandy Bates at the agency's Network Services Conference in Orlando, Fla., April 16, have not yet been determined, said Denny Groh, deputy associate commissioner for service delivery at FTS. But pilot tests of the new contract offerings should start by the beginning of fiscal 2003, he said.

"Right now, we're trying to look at the interest and how we can best provide service to our customers," Groh said.

The primary customer for these modifications will be the agencies involved in the National Wireless Communications Infrastructure Program (NWCIP), Hogan said.

NWCIP seeks to define the technology architecture for land mobile radio (LMR) systems used by first responders, she said. Existing LMR systems are generally single-channel analog FM voice systems, owned and operated by individual agencies to perform single, well-defined tasks.

Government officials years ago recognized the need for interoperability among those systems to enable the agencies using them to work together, but it wasn't until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that "it became absolutely evident to lots of people that we've been trying to go down different paths," Hogan said.

Commerce does not use any of the LMR systems, but for various reasons — including the position of its National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the head of radio spectrum management for federal users — the agency has "more or less played the role of proponent and facilitator of conversations," she said.

That includes working with GSA on the contract modifications and encouraging agencies to work together on programs such as the Defense Department's Pacific Mobile Emergency Radio System (PACMERS), which initially will cover federal agencies throughout Hawaii and Alaska.

According to Dennis Greenwood, executive agent for the DOD program, PACMERS and the general move toward interoperability really began with the NTIA mandate to reduce the federal use of spectrum bandwidth as commercial requirements grew.

"Because we had to [reduce bandwidth] anyway, we decided to get all the services together and do it together so we can all talk to" one another, he said.

The system now being installed in Hawaii will be used by all DOD services, as well as other federal agencies with offices on the islands, such as the FBI field office in Honolulu, he said. Each organization, within and outside DOD, will have its own private "talk group" so day-to-day communications do not get jumbled together.

With the new system, when two groups need to talk to each other, they will simply switch frequencies, something currently impossible because organizations do not own compatible hardware, Greenwood said.

The Hawaii system should be complete by May 1 and will be run for a month to work out any glitches. It is then expected to be fully operational on June 1. Alaska, which is also connecting state and local agencies to the system, will take a little longer, Greenwood said.

PACMERS "will provide the proving ground for [the NWCIP architecture], and it will let folks assess the applicability of that to other environments," Hogan said.

Officials hope that as other agencies address bandwidth restrictions by existing LMR systems, they will turn to the NWCIP architecture and the FTS contract, thereby fostering interoperability almost by default, she said.

During the coming months, FTS will conduct site evaluation visits around the country to look at the existing LMR infrastructure, Groh said. That will help FTS officials determine how agencies can more efficiently use the infrastructure and migrate to more interoperable systems.

FTS is working with the original FTS 2001 contractors — Sprint and WorldCom Inc. — but all of the telecom vendors that are eligible for crossing over to the contract will be welcome to propose solutions in this area, Groh said.

There should be no problem adding the LMR technology to the existing FTS 2001 offerings because "all of the requirements are within the scope of the contract. They're just not written or defined as they are needed," said Max Baxter, a senior government account executive at Sprint.

Sprint will assemble a team with other vendors to offer LMR hardware such as the Motorola Inc. or Ericsson systems used in Hawaii by PACMERS and the state and local agencies, Baxter said. Additional offerings should be available soon after because the increased interest in this technology from GSA and other agencies working on homeland security will likely overcome the administrative slowdowns that typically occur during contract modifications, he said. n

Coordinating communications National Wireless Communications Infrastructure Program: Provides interoperability for land mobile radio systems used by the Defense Department and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Designed to provide a single national wireless system to serve homeland security needs. Pacific Mobile Emergency Radio System: An emergency radio system being installed in Hawaii and Alaska to improve coordination between DOD and civilian federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Hawaii's portion of the system is expected to be complete by May 1.

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