Feds ponder broadband future
With the much-ballyhooed Integrated Wireless Network, or IWN, in jeopardy of failing despite a primary contractor being selected, federal officials are considering myriad options to provide wireless broadband access to federal law enforcement agents, as well as state and local first responders.
Last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the General Dynamics C4 Systems team is its selection to build IWN — a joint project of DOJ, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Treasury — to efficiently integrate voice, video and data communications for a variety of federal agents.
The IWN contract has been estimated to be worth between $5 billion and $30 billion over the next 15 years, and the much-desired project would be a coup for the Arizona-based unit of General Dynamics.
General Dynamics C4 Systems’ proposal calls for land mobile radio to be used for mission-critical voice communications, while multiple other technologies — commercial wireless, satellite phones and mesh networking — could be included, according to Jeff Osman, executive program manager for General Dynamic’s IWN team.
“We have proposed a mix of technologies that the customer can go forward with to meet its operational needs,” Osman said in an e-mail response. “It’s difficult to project which of these technologies the government will want to include in the final IWN solution.”
Perhaps more difficult to predict is whether IWN will be built at all. Just a few weeks before the contract announcement, DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine issued an audit that stated IWN is “at a high risk of failure.” Problems cited in the report included uncertain funding sources, an absence of effective governance and a “fractured” partnership between the federal agencies participating in the project.
“The system that results from this partnership likely will not be the seamless, interoperable system that was originally envisioned and … may not be adequate in the event of another terrorist attack or national disaster,” the report states.
For the DOJ, the IWN initiative is crucial because its current system is “antiquated,” with 75% of its infrastructure no longer supported by the manufacturer, according to the audit. In the audit, Fine criticized the department for spending two-thirds of its money to maintain its existing system, rather than updating it.
Fine recommended that the federal departments detail their commitment to IWN in a new memorandum of understanding or tell Congress that the joint communications network is not a viable project.
In fact, the audit notes that DHS already seems to be more interested in pursuing other communications solutions, such as the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) network, amid a high personnel turnover rate within its department.
Critics of the IWN project have stated that the plan is not cost-effective because the network would take billions to build and would serve the communications needs of only about 80,000 agents. Others have asked whether the SBI and IWN projects could be combined.
Meanwhile, with state and local public-safety entities searching for methods to meet their future broadband communications needs, at least one public-safety official expressed support for the notion of a single network being established to address all of these sectors.
“If you’re going to subsidize something, why not subsidize something that’s going to work for everyone?” asked Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va.
Of course, the debate concerning a nationwide broadband network for public safety has focused on proposals that would utilize commercial technologies operating in the 700 MHz band. While many question whether public/private partnerships to build such a network are economically feasible (see story on page 50), Congress and the FCC both are considering the notion.
A proposal by Frontline Wireless appears to be gaining momentum among federal officials. Late last month, the FCC opened a proceeding to address the proposal. Frontline has proposed that the FCC auction a 10 MHz block of spectrum to a wholesale provider that would be expected to build a broadband wireless network utilizing this spectrum and 12 MHz of adjacent public-safety spectrum. (For ongoing coverage, go to www.mrtmag.com/policy_law)
Buildout requirements for the auction winner included in Frontline’s proposed auction rules are quite specific — the commercial operator would have to provide coverage serving 70% of the continental U.S. population within four years, 95% coverage in seven years and 98% coverage in 10 years — but other obligations are not detailed.
Public-safety officials have expressed concern that the Frontline proposal would leave crucial items in limbo until after the auction, when the spectrum winner would have the right — but not an obligation — to negotiate a network-sharing agreement with public safety. “Our view is that it is an uncertainty, but that is preferred to establishing rules early that may be wrong,” said Stagg Newman, Frontline chief technology officer.
Other than using different frequencies and having the commercial operator licensed for 10 MHz of spectrum — as opposed to awarding 30 MHz of spectrum to a public-safety broadband trust — the Frontline proposal is similar to one made a year ago by Cyren Call Communications. Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O’Brien has questioned whether 22 MHz is enough spectrum to make a public/private partnership work for the commercial operator, and he expressed concern about whether public safety would have the leverage necessary to ensure that its needs were met without holding the spectrum license.
“Don’t you think we looked at doing it that way? It would have been so much easier, but it has that fatal flaw,” O’Brien said. “That’s why we went a different direction.”
There is increasing speculation within the Beltway that the Cyren Call proposal — one that has the backing of most national public-safety organizations — lacks support on Capitol Hill. As of press time, no member of Congress had agreed to sponsor enabling legislation, but O’Brien said the effort should not be discounted yet. “I’m optimistic, and I don’t come to optimism easily,” he said.
Meanwhile, many observers expressed doubt that any public/private partnership has any chance politically against the powerful lobbies of the commercial wireless carriers.
“[The Frontline proposal] will not fly,” said Roger Entner, senior vice president of IAG Research’s communications sector. “All of the wireless carriers will be up in arms.”
Meanwhile, the fact that neither public safety nor the commercial wireless industry have a single organization recognized as the sole, definitive voice for the entire sector makes it even more difficult to reach an agreement on a public/private partnership, said Andy Seybold, wireless analyst for Outlook 4Mobility.
“You’ve got a splintered first responder group and a splintered commercial group, and you’re trying to come up with a consensus,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
U.S. Departments of Justice and Treasury sign a memorandum of understanding to jointly pursue a communications solution to improve interoperability and save money.
The Department of Homeland Security is created and assumes many law enforcement responsibilities previously in the DOJ and the Department of the Treasury.
DOJ, DHS and the Department of the Treasury retain Acquisition Solutions to manage proposed Integrated Wireless Network.
DOJ selects the General Dynamics C4 Systems team as the primary contractor for IWN.
DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine releases audit that indicates the IWN project is in jeopardy.
General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin selected as finalists for IWN contract.
IWN pilot project in the Seattle area becomes operational.