$430 Million DHS Interoperability Program Under Fire
By: Dan Verton
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has to date spent $430 million on a failed effort to develop reliable interoperable communications systems and infrastructure across all of its component agencies, according to an internal audit.
In an audit report released on Nov. 2, DHS' Office of the Inspector General (IG) found only one out of 479 radio users was capable of tuning into the common DHS radio channel. And of the 382 radios tested by the IG, only 78 (20 percent) contained all of the correct program settings for the DHS common channel.
"Internal interoperability was not a priority for DHS components, and they did not exploit opportunities to achieve Department-wide interoperable communications," the IG stated in the report. "As a result, DHS personnel do not have reliable interoperable communications for daily operations, planned events, and emergencies."
The IG audit findings point to a combination of governance, management and technical problems, all of which played a role in preventing component agencies from being able to communicate with each other. In fact, of the 479 users tested, 345 were not aware of the common DHS communications channel, 118 users knew of the channel but could not find it on their radios, and 15 found a legacy channel.
When DHS was formed, it inherited more than 20 private national radio systems, including handheld radios and supporting infrastructure and services that serve about 123,000 field users. Last year, the Department created the Joint Wireless Program Management Office (JWPMO) to coordinate wireless investments and develop new technologies.
The IG report also identified a long-standing problem for large government agencies like DHS — lack of coordination and components doing their own thing. "Components independently developed and managed their own radio programs with no formal coordination from DHS," according to the IG report.
"At the time of our review, the components had not prepared their agreements" governing their participation in the JWPMO, the IG report stated. As a result, "the JWPMO has no authority to implement and enforce standardized policies and procedures to take advantage of interoperability opportunities."
However, a source in the JWPMO provided Homeland Security Today with overview documents dated Oct. 26 that outline the JWPMO's view of the challenges facing the department-wide effort to establish interoperable communications. Among the many obstacles the Department faces are Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems that are past their expected service life; coverage, capacity and encryption issues; and many of the radios are not compliant with the Program 25 (P-25) interoperability standards and narrowbanding mandates.
"Many of these systems, deployed more than twenty years ago are well beyond their intended service life, do not provide sufficient coverage for agents and officers in remote locations and do not meet federal mandates for security and efficiency," according to an overview document obtained by Homeland Security Today that describes DHS' plans for its next generation tactical communications system called TacNet.
DHS' JWPMO did not respond to Homeland Security Today's emails and phone calls for an interview, and the source who provided the overview documents was not authorized to speak publicly about them.
According to DHS estimates, a capital investment of $3.2B is needed to upgrade and modernize existing tactical communications systems across the Department with less than 15 percent of this requirement currently funded. Modernization nationwide, at current funding levels, would take decades to complete, according to the most current TacNet overview.
But DHS's JWPMO does have a transition plan in place, with a transition phase slated to begin in 2014 and a target date of 2024 for a TacNet capability based on hybrid first responder networks and commercial Long Term Evolution (LTE) capabilities.
"Providing a broadband connection to these devices also enables remote management (configuration programming, talk-group and encryption key updates) addressing a critical operational issue that plagues DHS today," the TacNet overview document states. "To maximize current investments, DHS is evaluating the possibility of modifying the existing LMR radio inventory with broadband interfaces. These broadband enabled LMR radios would enable seamless transition from existing state (i.e., LMR based infrastructure) to the future broadband vision supporting all three modes of operation."
In DHS' response to the IG report, Jim H. Crumpacker, the director of the Departmental GAO-OIG Liaison Office, said DHS acknowledges the problems it has had with interoperable communications and has learned from them. As a result, the Department finalized a new charter for the JWPMO, which gives it greater leverage over DHS-wide interoperability programs, said Crumpacker.
"Under the new charter, the JWPMO is authorized to deliver the joint next generation tactical communications capabilities and resources to the operators across the Department," wrote Crumpacker. And although all the agreements with the component agencies have not been completed, "the requisite structure has been established with the authority to execute DHS's wireless communications solutions."