Study Federal wireless net at high risk of failing

A new report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice concludes that an ambitious, multi-billion dollar federal wireless network faces a ‘high risk’ of failing to be achieved.

After nearly six years of work, and spending by the DOJ alone of US$195 million, there is little to show, according to Inspector General Glenn Fine. The report blames uncertain Congressional funding, conflicting spending priorities by a trio of cabinet-level departments, separate communications strategies by the same departments, and a decision-making structure that has stymied the network project.

Fine’s report said the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) faces significant challenges long before its completion date of 2021, challenges that its US$5 billion price tag will not be able to overcome.

The roots of the IWN trace back to federal wireless projects in 2001, which led to a 2002 report outlining the IWN design. The one large-scale success followed shortly afterwards: a $32 million pilot network, called the Seattle/Blaine Pilot Project, from November 2002 through September 2004, largely focused on documenting the spectral efficiencies of a joint, integrated wireless net.

In June 2004, a formal “memorandum of understanding” was reached by the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury to “develop, implement, and manage a joint wireless system.”

Today, the IWN seems mired in bureaucratic and policy pettiness.

The IG’s report noted that for fiscal 2006, about $772 million has been appropriated to fund the DOJ’s Narrowband Communications Account, managed by a DOJ unit called the Wireless Management Office. This centralized administration of all DOJ communications spending was required by Congress. Funds from the account pay both to maintain and run the department’s aging and increasingly insecure legacy radio systems and to fund the integrated IWN effort that’s intended to replace these.

But the net effect of this Congressionally-mandated centralization is to achieve the exact opposite of replacement. DOJ agencies and offices “are required to demonstrate the imminent failure of a particular system to receive funding to upgrade or replace existing legacy equipment and infrastructure,” says the report.

The DOJ’s Deputy CIO told the Inspector General’s auditors that only after these legacy needs are met, is any remaining funding available to allocate to IWN investments.

The result: of that $772 million in fiscal 2006, “almost two-thirds of this funding been used to maintain the DOJ’s antiquated legacy systems.”

During the first three fiscal years of the project, the three departments submitted joint IWN budget proposals for funding. But for fiscal 2008, Justice and Homeland Security filed separate funding requests, reflecting a fracturing of the partnership, according to the audit report.

“We believe that, as a result, the system that results from this partnership likely will not be the seamless, interoperable system that was originally envisioned and therefore the communication systems may not be adequate in the event of another terrorist attack or national disaster,” the report concluded.

High turnover at all levels of Homeland Security’s CIO office and IT group have made it difficult not only to agree on priorities and steps but has forced the three departments to continually revisit decisions already made. That’s because, the auditors say, the decision-making process, created by a joint 2004 memorandum of understanding, requires consensus yet has no provision whatsoever for moving forward if consensus cannot be achieved.

“There is no practical mechanism to resolve disagreements between the departments,” the report says.

The auditors offer several recommendations for Justice, but they amount to saying that the department should be ready to take specific actions to upgrade its radio communication systems to create an integrated network on its own, if the large-scale IWN project actually fails.

Thus, one recommendation is to negotiate what is, in effect, a new memorandum of understanding that explicitly states the shared goals, respective responsibilities, and the resource contributions of each department to implementing the IWN. But if such an agreement fails, the three departments should pursue their own internal IWN projects separately, and DOJ should be ready to go forward to upgrade its legacy systems, and to continue operations in the very high and ultra high frequencies without interference, the auditors say.

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