Telecom role model

Commentary: The key to good homeland security is cooperation between the public and private sectors

Some time next year, Congress will create a homeland security apparatus with a stronger posture of prevention and response. Whatever that outcome, better government/private-sector cooperation should be the principal long-term priority for the new organization.

Cooperation already is happening. Shippers are cooperating with the Customs Service to reduce the risk from uninspected containers. Information technology firms are honing their offerings to align with the new mission.

The most important area for cooperation is infrastructure. Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructures critical to our national survival — electric power, telecommunications, financial services, energy, health care, etc. — are privately owned and operated.

Focus increased in 1996, when a presidential commission recommended across-the-board government/private cooperation. But the telecom industry has been walking the walk for 20 years.

In 1982, President Reagan created the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee to assist in ensuring the continuity of domestic communications in national security and other emergencies. Its purview was expanded in 1995 to include information systems. The company members represent a broad spectrum of telecom and information systems providers and users (www.ncs.gov/nstac/nstac.htm).

From the outset, a key success factor has been participation from chief executive officers. Sustaining that participation requires sustained White House attention. Each U.S. president has personally participated in the NSTAC's deliberations. As a result, the CEOs give more than advice — they commit their companies to action.

In 1984, the committee helped create the National Coordinating Center (www.ncs.gov/ncc). At the NCC, 23 companies sit side by side with seven federal agencies, coordinating the response and reconstitution of communications in emergencies. The companies do this, not under government contract, but because they believe in national security and in meeting their responsibilities to shareholders and customers to provide continuous service.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the NCC used its Telecommunications Services Priority program to restore vital switches in New York's financial district. Its Government Emergency Telecommunications Service gave priority to 7,000 critical calls in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., in the face of network saturation. Both programs were recommended by the NSTAC.

Both the NCC and the NSTAC are supported by the National Communications System, a unique interagency entity supported by the Defense Department. The NCS is slated to move into the proposed Homeland Security Department. The new secretary would do well to capitalize on the outstanding model that the NSTAC and its creations provide.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com). He recently facilitated a two-day NSTAC planning session.

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