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Information technology > 10. Interoperable Radio Communications Systems

Better collaboration among agencies that rely on radio communications solutions for mission-critical operations would help to address fragmentation in their approach to improving the interoperability of radio communications systems and has the potential to achieve savings.

Why This Area Is Important

Tragic events, such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, have highlighted the importance of having effective radio communications systems for law enforcement and public safety agencies, including federal agencies with such responsibilities. In order to effectively respond to events such as natural disasters, criminal activities, and domestic terrorism, law enforcement and public safety agencies need reliable systems that enable communication with their counterparts in other disciplines and jurisdictions. For fiscal year 2012, the Office of Management and Budget reported that the federal government spent approximately $587 million on information technology investments where the primary business function was to provide voice communications capabilities.

The Integrated Wireless Network was intended to be a collaborative effort among the Departments of Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS), and the Treasury (Treasury) to provide secure, seamless, interoperable, and reliable nationwide wireless communication in support of federal agencies and officers engaged in law enforcement, protective services, homeland defense, and disaster response missions. This initiative began in 2001 and was originally estimated to cost approximately $5 billion. However, GAO reported in December 2008 that the departments were no longer pursuing the Integrated Wireless Network as a joint development project and had begun independently modernizing their own wireless communications systems.

Additionally, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 provides that up to $7 billion be used to, among other purposes, fund the building, deployment, and operation of a nationwide public safety broadband network.[1] This network is intended to provide a secure, reliable, and dedicated interoperable network for emergency responders to communicate during an emergency. However, GAO reported in February 2012 that while such a network would likely enhance interoperability by enabling accessibility of video and data applications that could improve incident response, it would not support mission-critical voice capabilities for perhaps 10 years or more.[2]



[1]See Pub. L. No. 112-96, 126 Stat. 156 (2012). Section 6413 of the act establishes a Public Safety Trust Fund and sets out the priorities in which the fund is to be used to make payments and deposits. Among the priorities is the deposit into the Network Construction Fund (established by section 6206) for purposes including the development of the nationwide public safety broadband network.

[2]For public safety, mission-critical voice communications must meet a high standard for reliability, redundancy, capacity, and flexibility, as determined by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council.

What GAO Found

GAO reported in December 2008 that DOJ, DHS, and Treasury had decided to independently modernize their own wireless communications systems rather than continuing to pursue the Integrated Wireless Network as a joint development project. While DOJ and Treasury (and later DHS) collaborated on a pilot demonstration of the Integrated Wireless Network in the Seattle/Blaine area that continues to provide service to multiple agencies, the departments determined that this specific system design could not be implemented on a nationwide scale, and they have not acted collaboratively to identify an alternative approach for a jointly coordinated communications solution. In lieu of a joint solution, DOJ decided to implement a nationwide network for its component agencies, and DHS and its components decided to pursue numerous independent solutions.

GAO reported in December 2008 that a primary reason why the collaboration on this joint communications solution had not been successful was that the departments did not effectively employ key cross-agency collaboration practices. Specifically, they could not agree on a common outcome or purpose to overcome their differences in missions, cultures, and established ways of doing business; they had not established a collaborative governance structure with a process for decision making and resolving disputes; and they had not developed a joint strategy for moving forward. While DHS considered improving radio communications at the nation’s borders to be a major priority, DOJ’s priorities were in other areas. Program officials from both departments acknowledged that these differing priorities led to an inability to resolve conflicts. For example, both DOJ and DHS stated that making joint decisions in their original partnership depended on reaching consensus among the departments, and when consensus could not be reached, progress on the Integrated Wireless Network stalled. As a result, they established several initiatives aimed at high-level coordination, none of which are focused on developing a joint communications solution.

Since 2008, DHS, DOJ, and Treasury have continued to focus on their own communications initiatives. While some of these initiatives are being coordinated across the departments, none are focused on developing a joint communications solution. Specifically,

  • DHS reported that it has a joint technology laboratory with DOJ that is intended for, among other things, the development of interoperable radio solutions; however, its key efforts have been focused on acquiring and implementing radio communications systems to enable interoperable communications within DHS and not among other departments. For example, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection has continued developing and implementing a nationwide radio communications network intended to improve and update radio communications for its own officers and agents.

In 2011, DHS directed an executive committee to create a joint wireless program management office that coordinates wireless communications activities across the department. However, a November 2012 DHS Office of Inspector General report found that DHS did not establish an effective governing structure for achieving Department-wide interoperability.[1] Specifically, the report stated that, although DHS had created working groups, committees, and offices to explore Department-wide communication issues, including interoperability; none had the authority to implement and enforce their recommendations.

Additionally, an August 2013 DHS Office of Inspector General report found that DHS needs to better manage its 20 different radio communications networks (which have a reported value of more than $1 billion) across the department in order to more efficiently utilize its resources, reduce duplicative efforts, and more strategically invest in modernizing aging networks.[2] In February 2014, DHS reported that it had made progress in improving the management and oversight of its radio communications.  For example, DHS officials reported that they had drafted a DHS Communications Interoperability Plan, which is intended to provide guidance to interoperability projects on topics such as governance, technical solutions, and training.

  • According to a January 2012 DOJ Office of the Inspector General report, the department was planning to continue to develop an independent nationwide radio communications system (also referred to as DOJ’s Integrated Wireless Network). According to the Office of the Inspector General’s report, $356 million had been spent on this system.[3] As part of DOJ’s efforts, it established a network in the National Capital Region in 2009. In December 2013, DOJ reported that it meets with representatives from Treasury, DHS, and the Department of the Interior to ensure that the National Capital Region network meets their needs.

In February 2014, DOJ reported additional examples of its efforts to improve the interoperability of radio communications systems. For example, DOJ reported that its Federal Interoperability Program provides federal law enforcement and crisis response agencies with the ability to communicate with key local authorities in metropolitan areas that are deemed most likely targets for an attack or event. However, as of February 2014, DOJ’s primary efforts continue to revolve around establishing a land mobile radio network for its department—independent of other federal agencies’ efforts. Officials reported that in regions where law enforcement missions require collaboration with other federal agencies, they consider those agencies’ radio communications requirements, and sharing agreements are developed at the local level.

  •  As of September 2013, Treasury reported that it was coordinating with DHS and DOJ, had retired its agency-specific radio communications systems in the areas where the Integrated Wireless Network had been deployed, and was complying with radio communications interoperability standards where the Integrated Wireless Network had not been deployed.

Additionally, in February 2014, Treasury reported, among other things, that it participates in the Federal Partnership for Interoperable Communications whose goals include identifying and enhancing wireless communications interoperability capabilities within the federal government and coordinating these efforts with state and local interoperability programs. However, the department had at least five additional radio communications solutions that it was independently developing or maintaining. Treasury reported that some of the existing solutions would be maintained because those systems only require coverage around a single facility and they use a different radio spectrum than radio systems that provide larger coverage areas. Treasury did not provide the costs associated with all of these systems.

While collaboration on a joint solution is critical for success, this joint solution need not be based on a single nationwide network, such as an extension of the original Integrated Wireless Network design. It could also consist of a mutually agreed-upon strategy for developing separate but interoperable networks and systems that incorporate lessons learned from past efforts. In December 2008, GAO suggested that Congress consider requiring that DOJ, DHS, and Treasury employ key cross-agency collaboration practices to develop a joint radio communications solution. Implementation of these practices is critical to sustaining a successful interagency project. As of March 2014, Congress has yet to require DHS, DOJ, and Treasury to collaborate on the development and implementation of a joint radio communications solution.



[1]DHS, DHS’ Oversight of Interoperable Communications, OIG-13-06 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 2, 2012).

[2]DHS, DHS Needs to Manage Its Radio Communication Program Better, OIG-13-113 (Washington, D.C.: Aug. 29, 2013).

[3]DOJ, Audit of the Department of Justice’s Implementation of the Integrated Wireless Network, Audit Report 12-10 (Washington, D.C.: January 2012).

Actions Needed

In the absence of a solution that currently delivers interoperable mission-critical voice communication capabilities to federal, state, and local emergency response officials, GAO continues to believe, as suggested in December 2008, that Congress should consider requiring DHS, DOJ, and Treasury to collaborate on the development and implementation of a joint radio communications solution that specifically requires the departments to establish an effective governance structure that includes a formal process for making decisions and resolving disputes, define and articulate a common outcome for this joint effort, and develop a joint strategy for improving radio communications.

While GAO is unable to quantify the cost savings of a joint radio communications solution, a coordinated approach provides the opportunity for potential savings on the reportedly nearly $600 million spent annually by the federal government on voice communications technologies.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO reports section as well as additional work conducted by GAO and the DHS Office of Inspector General. To update the information from these reports, GAO followed up with each of the departments (DHS, DOJ, and Treasury) to identify (1) wireless communications systems that were being developed, modernized, or maintained across the department; (2) efforts to consolidate communications systems across the department; and (3) efforts under way to ensure interoperable mobile communications within each department as well as with other federal, state, and local agents, and first responders.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on a draft of our 2008 report, DOJ and DHS disagreed with GAO’s findings and conclusions. DOJ stated, among other things, that its business environment was not conducive to a single mobile radio solution, and that such an approach was no longer feasible or cost-effective. DHS also stated, among other things, that GAO’s report was focused on mandating that the three agencies have one radio communications solution and that it implied that any other option would result in a stovepipe of non-interoperable communications systems. GAO disagreed with these comments, stating that a single common project or system was not necessarily the best solution, and that it did not advocate such a system as the best solution. GAO added that although a joint solution could be based on a single nationwide network, such as an extension of the original Integrated Wireless Network design, it could also be, for example, a mutually agreed-upon strategy for developing separate but interoperable networks and systems.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DHS, DOJ, and Treasury for review and comment. In emails received in February 2014, all three of the departments provided written comments. The departments also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

DHS and DOJ did not agree with our overall findings and conclusions. Specifically, DOJ and DHS commented that collaboration alone would not necessarily solve interoperability problems and reduce costs. Further, DHS added that, if done right, more collaborative actions likely would add to the overall cost, rather than reduce it. GAO recognizes that efforts beyond collaboration are required and that technical challenges to improving the interoperability of radio communications systems exist. However, past collaboration between agencies has shown that agencies can improve radio communications interoperability and reduce costs. For example, as stated by DOJ and Treasury officials, collaboration among agencies on the Integrated Wireless Network deployed in the National Capital Region has improved the interoperability of radio communications systems that access this network. Additionally, DHS’s United States Coast Guard stated that it saved costs by sharing a telecommunications tower with DOJ’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. GAO continues to believe that successful collaboration on a joint solution—whether that solution is the Integrated Wireless Network or an alternative approach—is necessary to promote efficient use of resources, reduce duplicative efforts, and encourage interoperability.

DHS and DOJ also stated that it is currently both technically infeasible and more expensive to create a single system that meets multiple agencies’ requirements. However, GAO did not advocate that a single common project or system was necessarily the best solution. As previously reported, although a joint solution could be based on a single nationwide network, it could also be a mutually agreed-upon strategy for developing separate but interoperable networks and systems.

In comments from Treasury, the department reported that additional DHS participation on the Integrated Wireless Network would be welcomed because DHS would be able to provide valuable spectrum resources.

For additional information about this area, contact Carol R. Cha at (202) 512-4456 or chac@gao.gov.

Related Products

Emergency Communications:

Various Challenges Likely to Slow Implementation of a Public Safety Broadband Network
GAO-12-343:
Published: Feb 22, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 22, 2012.

Radio Communications:

Congressional Action Needed to Ensure Agencies Collaborate to Develop a Joint Solution
GAO-09-133:
Published: Dec 12, 2008. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2008.

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