A $20 million, 28-mile prototype (P-28) ‘virtual’ fence built by Boeing Co. developed to thwart illegal immigration along the Mexico-U.S. border hasn’t met border control agents’ needs, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported. However, the federal government has no plans to scrap the program as recently reported by the mainstream press, said Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Laura Keehner.

“It would be wrong to conclude that the federal government is scrapping the virtual fence,” she said.

The P-28 virtual fence project uses a series of electronic, wireless devices to detect movement along the 28-mile stretch near Tuscon, Ariz. The project’s purpose is to secure the northern and southern borders over the next five to six years using a mix of technology, infrastructure and human resources. The GAO said its main shortcoming is the lapse time between the electronic detection of individuals illegally crossing the border and the data reaching hand-held devices and mission-control systems used by border-control personnel.

But Keehner said the project was never intended to be the perfect, end-state solution; instead, it was a test bed for the technologies. In fact, the DHS anticipated a need for changes once the U.S. Border Patrol started using it. “That is why the towers were mobile rather than permanently fixed to the ground. It would have made no sense to cement towers into the earth if we knew there was a possibility they might need to be moved a few yards in another direction to maximize effectiveness,” Keehner said. “We are now at a stage where we can begin to permanently fix these towers to the ground.”

Wayne Esser, Boeing’s director of strategic development for the Secure Border Initiative program that developed the fence, said the prototype uses off-the-shelf hardware and software to track illegal immigration activities. It currently consists of communication technologies that include sensors and radar systems housed on a series of mobile towers. The data then are transmitted over a restricted, wireless network to border-control agents, he said.

Early on in the prototype phase, the company ran into operator interface and timing performance issues, where lapses in communications affected the speed at which data traveled over the system.

“Part of the problem was that the [technologies] were put in on a temporary basis, and so we didn’t put up the full communications system. We used a slower satellite system because of the costs and timing because we would not have been able to meet the schedule if we tried to put up the full system,” Esser said. “So, consequently, we had some communication lags in the system that created operational issues. Obviously, it wasn’t ideal and won’t be the case when we go up with the full microwave system.”

The company said the fence ultimately will consist of microwave radio links that mounted on fixed communication and surveillance towers; however, field officers still will use Iridium satellite hand-held units for voice and data connectivity.

“So it will be a pretty traditional communications system, which is a lot more cost effective than going full satellite 24/7,” Esser said.

Esser acknowledges the integration of thousands of sensors, radars and cameras -- as well as understanding how agents run operations -- has been a challenge.

“You have the agent in the vehicle and then those in the command center and the sector chiefs -- and they all want to see it work differently,” Esser said. “So it’s going to be an evolutionary process as we move forward and learn to work together.”

The system will not piggyback on cellular networks.

“We’re not using the cellular networks because, in most of the [rural area] along the border, there just aren’t any,” Esser said. “We looked at it and talked to several of the major cell-phone operators to look at the economics of actually using cellular and installing it—and it’s just not there.”

The next phase of the system that includes the erection of fixed towers as well as microwave communication systems and will be deployed in late summer, Esser said.