DHS wants to ride commercial wave for interoperable radio network

Monday - 2/27/2012, 5:40am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Tight budgets and private sector innovation are forcing the government to take a new approach to building an interoperable radio communications networks for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

After a decade of unsuccessful attempts, including the Justice Department's Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), the Homeland Security Department wants to leap forward with technology by using commercial 4G networks to connect law enforcement agencies.

Richard Spires, DHS CIO (DHS photo)

"We have this wave of commercial capability that is outstripping everything we've done in our traditional land mobile radio capability," said Richard Spires, DHS chief information officer, Friday during a breakfast sponsored by AFCEA Bethesda in Bethesda, Md. "How is that we can, as a government, start to leverage that capability? I don't want to be in the business of building towers. We just don't want to do that anymore. We are not that good at that. We are not a telecommunications provider. That is not our expertise. We want to buy these capabilities as services."

DHS has set up a joint program office from across the department to lead this latest effort.

"We have gotten all the components that have this need to work together," Spires said. "We've reached out the Justice Department and other organizations across the federal government. We think it is time to take this on."

Contracts or challenges

Spires said he led a governance meeting last week to figure out how best to run the program and work with industry.

"How is it that we work with industry on advancing the capabilities to be able to meet our needs?" he asked. "But do it in a way where we are buying it as a service instead of us having to invest and run services ourselves."

Spires said the end result could be a standard contract, but the joint program office also is considering challenges and prizes to help solve this long-time problem.

And it's been a problem for some time.

Spires said the government has spent hundreds of millions, and still have significant issues in land mobile radios, narrowband and interoperability.

Chris Smith, CIO, Agriculture Department (USDA photo)

The IWN effort run by Justice, never received enough funding and had only limited success for Justice users. It never expanded beyond Justice, and a few years ago, DHS pulled out of IWN totally and the Treasury Department became an inactive participant.

The Bush administration created the Safecom program to develop standards for land mobile radios. It developed the P25 standard, and while it's widely accepted, adoption has been slow.

Chris Smith, the Agriculture Department CIO, said this effort by DHS is part of the recognition agencies can no long do these large projects alone. He said agencies have too little money and too many common needs.

"If we share infrastructure, there's a great deal of opportunities," he said. "We have done one of the first 4G LTE interoperable networks out in Hawaii. We've been working with DHS and others where we see it's not just us in the federal family, but can the state and locals come along. Interoperability is across the board."

Shared services deadline looms

Smith said the high-speed network is an example of why the Office of Management and Budget's shared services initiative is so important.

In fact, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel reminded agencies they have until March 1 to decide which two commodity IT services will be moved to a shared service provider by the end of 2012. OMB detailed that requirement as part of the 2013 IT budget passback guidance sent to agencies in November.

VanRoekel said there has been a lot of discussion about doing more with less, but he wants to talk about doing more and how technology can drive those efficiencies and add value. He said shared services, cloud first and future first initiatives are among his top approaches to increasing efficiencies and value.

He said that means agencies need to stop the projects that take three to five to seven years.

"I'll call on you as the vendor community as I'm going to call on the agencies of government to really think about how to really take that future first step, how to build solutions," VanRoekel said. "I've talked to appropriators on the Hill and said 'Next time someone comes and pitches that big-price tag, multi-year project, make sure I'm involved, and let's talk about how to do that in a way that we can actually do that in a future first way that uses agile, lean start up methodology.'"

Several agencies already are taking on that agile approach.

Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO, Veterans Affairs (VA photo)

At the Veterans Affairs Department, Roger Baker, the assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO, said all of their projects have milestones every six months and are expected to deliver value in that timeframe.

Spires also has reviewed all major IT projects at DHS and saw opportunities to save money and add value. For instance, DHS is moving nine services to public or private clouds such as email, collaboration and website hosting.

And he also asked DHS component CIOs to do more.

"We were given some tough targets to meet and in working through my own CIO council within DHS, one of the things we decided to do, not that all the CIOs at the component level necessarily liked this, but we collectively agreed to take a 10 percent reduction across the board in our IT infrastructure in 2013," Spires said. "It is somewhat of a challenge to ourselves to say, 'We've got to figure out a way to streamline our infrastructure through shared first kinds of initiatives … in order to plow back those additional funds because we are pretty flat-lined within DHS on the IT side right now, plow that back into more business and mission-oriented investments to support our customers.' And we've done that."

HSIN consolidation continues

Along those same lines, DHS is consolidating networks, including merging several into the Homeland Security Information Sharing Network (HSIN), the unclassified system for law enforcement agencies.

"We really are putting a lot of emphasis now on upgrading that system," Spires said. "I was just in a review of this the other day, it was heartening to hear this, there are more than 1,000 new members on the HSIN on the infrastructure protection side every month now. That says an awful lot about the outreach and information sharing that is going on. We have a consolidation effort using HSIN as our go-to platform for that sensitive, but unclassified information. Last year we consolidated four other portals into HSIN. This year we're planning on consolidating three more, and we have about a dozen more after that to do."

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