SBInet tower construction begins

The Homeland Security Department began work on May 4 installing 17 permanent towers for the first segment of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) virtual fence, the program’s executive director said today.

The SBInet program has completed testing of the surveillance and communications technologies to be hung on the towers — including the cameras, radars and common operating picture software — and DHS expects to begin installing those elements within weeks assuming DHS officials give final approval, said Mark Borkowski, executive director for the Secure Border Initiative. That program includes SBInet as well as fencing and vehicle barriers.

The initial construction is taking place on a 23-mile "Tucson-1" section of the border near Tucson, Ariz. “This is the installation of the no-kidding, real SBInet system,” Borkowski said. “It is a fairly major milestone.”

The program office is ready to expand SBInet to the 30-mile Ajo-1 segment in weeks. After the Tucson-1 and Ajo-1 segments are operating, the virtual fence will be tested by the border patrol and a decision will be made on whether to proceed on work for the rest of the border of Arizona and Mexico, Borkowski said.

The project began in 2006 to help gain operational control of the border. Prime contractor Boeing Co. built a 28-mile prototype that has been operating in Arizona since February 2008. Boeing’s three-year contract will likely be extended for an additional year in September, Borkowski said.

The total cost for the SBInet deployment along the U.S.-Mexico border is estimated at $6.7 billion, and about $500 million has been spent, Borkowski said.

The program has learned several lessons from its experience with the first 28-mile prototype, Borkowski said. Lawmakers criticized Project 28 for delays, operational glitches and apparent changes in project goals.

Borkowski said getting operational control of the border requires a combination of barriers, agents and technology, and should be measured by capabilities for detection and response. “We have become a lot more sophisticated in our knowledge of operational control,” he said.

Borkowski said the project's goal is to detect 70 percent of the illegal traffic across the border when the system is operating; it has day and night cameras, and radars. Some agents may want higher resolution cameras to detect more traffic, but those systems would be more complex and more costly, he said.

SBInet still faces some concerns from lawmakers. According to an April 30 report from the Government Accountability Office, the latest spending plan satisfied only three of the 12 legislative conditions set for spending $400 million in supplemental funds for the program.

“We agreed with the GAO on some things, and disagreed on others,” Borkowski said today. His office has provided additional information to House and Senate committees since the report was published and is waiting for approval to use the funds, he said.