Boeing virtual fence: $30 billion failure

Boeing virtual fence: $30 billion failure

Summary: The Department of Homeland Security "virtual fence" project, being built by Boeing, is in big, big trouble. The virtual fence is a high-tech network of cameras, lighting, sensors, and technology designed to intercept illegal border crossings.

TOPICS: Government

The Department of Homeland Security "virtual fence" project, being built by Boeing, is in big, big trouble. The virtual fence is a high-tech network of cameras, lighting, sensors, and technology designed to intercept illegal border crossings. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Boeing Co. has changed the management of an electronic-surveillance project along the U.S.-Mexican border after falling more than two months behind schedule, marking the complications involved in setting up a new generation of border security.

The project, part of a larger Department of Homeland Security program called SBInet, is a critical link in the plan to use technology to monitor the borders for illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and possible terrorists. Towers set up along a stretch of the border near Nogales, Ariz., are supposed to use motion sensors, cameras and radar to keep track of wide areas. According to the government, Boeing has had trouble getting the different components to work together without glitches.

The government's plans for monitoring as much as 6,000 miles of the Canadian and Mexican borders hinge on towers such as these working properly. If they prove ineffective, officials could be forced to spend billions of dollars for more traditional security measures, such as fences and more officers. The Homeland Security Department currently estimates that the virtual fence will cost about $8 billion through 2013, although the agency's inspector general wrote last November that the cost could balloon to $30 billion.

Additional information can be found in a superb article by Joseph Richey, of the Nation Institute, which funds investigative journalism:

In Washington, U.S. Congressional representatives are already bristling at the skyrocketing costs of SBInet. Since Boeing won the contract last year, the estimated cost of securing the southwest border has gone from $2.5 billion to an estimated $8 billion just a few months later. When Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter asked SBInet Director Giddens for the real costs at a February 2007 hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, Giddens replied: "I wish I could answer that with greater clarity."

At the same Congressional hearings, Boeing vice president and SBInet program manager, Jerry McElwee, took heat from Congressman William Lacy Clay who demanded information about the ballooning costs and the extension of the contract period. "You bid on these contracts and then you come back and say, 'Oh we need more time. It costs more than twice as much.' Are you gaming the taxpayers here? Or gaming DHS?" the Missouri Democrat asked.

DHS's own inspector general, Richard Skinner, says that the Boeing contract is in the "high-risk" category for waste and abuse because of its scope, its dollar value, and "the vulnerabilities stemming from the lack of acquisition management capacity."

A major concern is the pyramid-like management structure that critics say have led to cost overruns and poor quality in other major projects. They note that the multiple subcontracting tiers allow Boeing to exact a cut at every turn, and create a conflict of interest because the company is also in charge of oversight.

This failure has the potential to eventually rival the UK National Health Service disaster, known affectionately as the "greatest IT disaster in history." It also brings back memories of the Airbus failure, in which multiple project segments failed to work when brought together as a finished unit.

The level of planning and coordination required to complete a project like this on time and budget almost defies human capability. Why don't they break it down into smaller, simpler components, increasing the likelihood the thing can actually be built?

Update 9/10/07: DHS has another failure on its hands. Read about it here.

Topic: Government

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  • 6,000 miles @ 30 billion dollars..

    That would be 5 million dollars a mile. I might be wrong, but I think you could build a really good REAL wall for that money. Maybe even put some freakin laser beams on it..
    • Just a little more math..

      That comes out to just about $1000 a foot btw..
      • which is too little

        Consider the height of the wall, the special terrain, the inaccessibility of the transportation to deliver the material there, labor cost, AND the whole project management management, estimates, studies, etc, then I think you can't build a wall for this price.
        • maybe on the moon...

          Give me $30 billion and I'll make a company that will:
          Build the roads to...
          build a wall
          with cameras
          and armed patrols with helicopter flyovers,
          When I'm done it would like it was right out of the movie "Escape from New York".
          $30 BILLION Freakin' dollars! Billion!
          I ALSO can NOT build a virtual fence for $30 Billion .
  • land based monitoring is just wrong

    for the numbers that they are talking about, why not develop a satellite that would monitor from above with infrared and all the bells and whistles, or a network of them, since it's not the only place that we should be watching with some interest.
  • Typical Government project...

    Give a company that specializes in designing/building airlplanes the job of creating a huge network of security equipment to secure a national border...yeah, that makes perfect sense. I wonder if WalMart got pulled in as an advisor on the project...
    • Typical

      The only thing more predictable than waste in a government job is a Union shill slamming wal-mart.
      • Union shill?

        I'm a software developer. Never been in a union, never will. Maybe your life revolves around unions but some of us have lives.
  • $30 billion/ 6000 miles = $5000/mile....ouch!

    [i]A major concern is the pyramid-like management structure that critics say have led to cost overruns and poor quality in other major projects.[/i]

    Too many managers doing the babble talk and too few technicians to install the equipment...sounds like most American corporations do this, so yes we are running the government like a corporation now....LOL.
    Linux Geek
    • my bad, it's actually $5millions/mile.... ;)

      Mea culpa, I thought it was $30 millions but it's $30 [b]billions[\b].
      With this money you can get a heck of a low tech phisical fence.
      Linux Geek
      • at that price

        they could build the fence out of dollar bills
        • who would cross a fence made of money ;-)

  • Most people don't care, they just bleed a little more ...

    It doesn't hurt. Just another $40-$50 dollars a month taken out of your paycheck by the IRS. You never notice it, it's just gone before you get a chance to spend it. When they give a few pennies back next year, you jump for joy and rush out and splurge on a new PS3 or iPod.

    In the meantime, a bunch of Boeing project managers are building new houses with indoor pools and tennis courts. And a few top executives and shareholders are buying new private jets with marble floors and mahogany table tops, to fly them to their private island vacation homes.

    Politicians are getting millions in campaign contributions. Government aides and purchasing agents are getting sweet job deals from the contractors when they leave office. And 200 million taxpayers just shell out a few more bucks every month to pay for it all.
    terry flores
    • How True

      I really wish that employers would force their employees to pay their own taxes, Social Security, and medicare.

      I think that after the first few checks that people had to write, there'd be a revolution.

      I think that if you add up all taxes (federal, state, county, city, ect.) it probably adds up to 40% or more.

      Same delusion exists about employers providing health & life insurance and others I can't remember right now. All of it comes out of your pay check, you just never see it.
      middle of nowhere
      • You're quite correct!!

        All anybody needs to do is ask the question: Where does anyone get the money to pay his tax bill? The correct answer will quickly tell you that: "A tax on anybody is a tax on everybody". If you think that by "taxing the rich" or "taxing big business" you'll dodge the payment, you're sadly mistaken.

        Actually, if you total the spending of the entities you mention, and add the present value of the debt that these entities saddle us with, you'll realize that nearly 50 cents of each dollar that passes through anyone's hands will wind up in a government coffer.

        I'm with you, I wish more people would realize these simple facts.
    • True True True

      Its Not only true its SAD that you can work all your life in a "free" country just to be dicarded into "retirement" when you are no longer useful and spend the rest of your days eating catfood or whatever is on sale because medicare is bleeding you dry for 40 prescriptions a month and social security is GONE because ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS and GOVERNMENT have sucked it dry. All the while SMILING in your Face talking About what YOU should've done different in your life to be prepared for the "Golden Years" But PLEASE DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT NOW TO FIX SOCIAL SECURITY, GOVERNMENT INEFFICIENCY, OR IMMIGRATION BY ALL MEANS LET AVIATION COMPANIES "LEARN" HOW TO NETWORK CAMERAS ECT. AT THE TAXPAYERS EXPENSE AND MAYBE MICROSOFT COULD TRYOUT AVIATION FOR PETES SAKE !!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHEN WILL ANYTHING CHANGE?
  • Not an IT failure.

    The "Virtual Fence" was proposed by those offended by the idea of a physical wall, because a wall might keep people from crossing illegally. From it's supporter's perspective, the whole point of a "virtual fence" as opposed to a real one is that it is wholly ineffective. This is a way to pretend to build a fence, without the downside of stopping illegal crossings. You can't blame Boing for delivering what was [i]really[/i] ordered.
    • We disagree

      Boeing signed up for a project is almost certain to fail on a massive scale. In my opinion, boeing has complete responsibility for agreeing to do the impossible.
      • You don't understand!

        Boeing was given the contract to pay it back for the $upport it gave to the people who were elected and have now awarded the contract. Also, now that the contract has be awarded there are thousands of people who will vote for the people who awarded the contract, or else the next set of people will rebid the contract and award it to the people who $upported them. It has nothing to do with American or border security, just job $ecurity and paybacks.
        • Is this a serious argument?

          You can't actually believe that there are no substantive issues and analysis in the awarding of these contracts? Read through the project failures in this blog: huge projects have a higher degree of failure than smaller ones. This is just common sense. Regardless of your political beliefs, it's not as simplistic as you make it out to be.