OWIN defends itself against accusations
I recently wrote an article regarding the progress of the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network, or OWIN, a project mandated by the state of Oregon and overseen by its Department of Transportation to build out a 700/800 MHz, Project 25 wireless communication system from the ground up that will be used by fire, law enforcement and other first-responder departments. The new system will replace an existing system that by all accounts should have been replaced years ago.
In response, an Urgent Communications reader commented that all may not be well in Oregon. Specifically, he said that a local paper had alleged that the management and development of the network was riddled with corruption.
An article recently published in The Oregonian alleged that OWIN lied about the number of radio sites that were near completion, based on a map that had been presented to state officials. The Portland-based newspaper further alleged that more than half the radio tower sites needed for the network either were not finished or the state lacked the right to use them. In addition, of the completed sites, most had been finished by other agencies, not by the statewide radio project. And, in some cases, OWIN officials hadn’t done any work on sites that the maps showed as completed. Finally, the article accused officials of wasting taxpayer dollars.
The reader questioned why I hadn’t investigated this angle. So I contacted OWIN spokesperson Don Hamilton to find out what, if anything, was amiss. Hamilton was offended by the accusation that taxpayers’ dollars are being wasted by OWIN. He said that the project and the money allocated to it both are sorely needed, noting that the state’s existing system is so dilapidated and antiquated that IT personnel often must place bids on eBay to find replacement parts. He added that one estimate — from six years ago — indicated that 80% of the existing system needed to be replaced. In addition, it was the state that mandated that the existing radio infrastructure be replaced to address interoperability issues and to provide first responders on the streets with the needed radio coverage to protect the citizenry, he said, adding that the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate also put pressure on the state to move the project forward.
However, Hamilton admitted that the article wasn’t inaccurate in reporting that some legislators felt that they were misled by the map that had been presented to them. He added that that this was a regrettable, but unintentional, error.
“There’s no allegation that anyone at OWIN committed any perjury or lied in any legal way,” he said. “There are no allegations of any criminal fraud at issue here at all.”
A bigger problem, however, is that the project no longer appears to be on target to meet the 2012 deadline for completion. Worse, some fear that funding for the project will be cut because Oregon, like many states, is having a difficult time right now financially. Indeed, the state recently was named by Pew Research as among those currently in fiscal peril.
Hamilton couldn’t provide any answers when I asked him whether funding would continue and from where the money might be found. Given the current economic state of our country, I can’t hold that against him — tax dollars declined dramatically from coast to coast in 2010. But for the sake of Oregon’s first responders and the potential victims they may have to save, let’s hope the OWIN buildout continues to be funded. And if corruption does exist regarding its management, I hope Oregon officials root it out and dispose of it before it damages the reputation of those who are working long hours to put together a reliable communications system for public safety.
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