Border Technology Czar Slams Work of Prime Contractors

By Stew Magnuson
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to make a final decision on the fate of the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) virtual fence project by mid-December, said Customs and Border Protection’s new head of technology acquisition.
Mark Borkowski, who was recently named CBP’s first assistant commissioner for technology innovation and acquisition, spoke of the project’s future at a Nov. 22 luncheon. DHS has yet to make an official announcement about the fate of SBInet.
He did not have much good to say about large prime contractors.
One key change in the program will be a focus on building a open architectures where technology could be inserted into systems as needed.
“When I talk of open architecture, I don’t mean ACME prime integrator that I pay $5 million and will integrate it. I mean plug and play,” he said at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association talk.  
“When I talk to folks about this, the folks who really seem to impress us are the innovative small businesses … I will tell you that the large businesses don’t get it,” he said.
The SBInet project was originally conceived as a system of cameras and sensors in the Southwest that would be connected to Border Patrol agents in vehicles who could see live streaming video and other sensor feeds on a common operating picture. The program was plagued by delays and technical problems from the beginning, including numerous false alarms from the sensors. Border Patrol agents, however, are using some of the envisioned capabilities in two areas totaling 53 miles.
The prime contractor for the technology demonstration portion of the initiative was Boeing, which was initially awarded $20 million and wide leeway to set up 27 miles of the so-called virtual fence in the remote desert south of Tucson, Ariz. It has received more than $1 billion in contracts since then. Boeing spokeswoman Jenna McMullin declined to comment specifically on Borkowski’s comments.
Napolitano halted SBInet in January and ordered a review of the program. That has taken nearly one year. The new SBInet will be much tailored mix and match of appropriate technologies based on an area’s needs, Borkowski said.
One of the problems that emerged was a lack of commercial communication infrastructure in the first two areas where it was deployed. There were no wireless broadband services that would have made live-streaming video to a vehicle possible, and the program did not have the funding to build its own network. About 30 percent of the Southwest borderlands have no wireless connectivity at all, he added.
He said CBP has had many shortcomings when it comes to acquisition programs. His new office is instituting a more disciplined acquisition structure with requirements, better liaisons with the officers in the field who use the technologies, a head of systems engineering and a chief of technology. He admitted that industry may find it shocking that CBP is just now adopting acquisition practices that are common at the Defense Department and at DHS agencies such as the Coast Guard.
Putting words into the audience’s mouths, he said, “Oh my gosh, they’re talking about basics. They’re talking about stuff that should have been there a long time ago. They’re spending billions of dollars and now they’re talking about requirements? They’re talking about technology push and systems engineering?”
A former Air Force colonel who served in the acquisition ranks and at NASA in a similar capacity, Borkowski painted a picture of an agency that was in disarray when he came on board as the SBInet program manager in October 2008.   “One of the first things I set out to do was put a big map on the wall and try to figure what technologies we have on the border. You would be amazed how hard that was to do,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Border Security

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