The system, at an original cost of $67 million, was the brainchild of Boeing Corp., which did not return numerous phone calls for this story. The system seemed simple enough, relying on existing technology and a wireless network. When illegal immigrants activated sensors on the ground, the radar system on the tower was supposed to identify the location and send the information by wireless network to laptops in a Border Patrol agent's vehicle.
Project 28 became the vaunted goal of DHS; a virtual fence that would once and for all close the door on little Sasabe, a small town situated along the popular corridor used to cross undetected into the United States.
Hopes ran high.
"Project 28 is being carried out along 28 miles of border flanking the Sasabe, Arizona, port of entry," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress six months into the project. "It will demonstrate the SBInet system's capabilities by deploying sensor towers, unattended ground systems and upgrades to existing Border Patrol vehicles and communications systems. Project 28's completion date is set for June 2007."Project 28's shortcomings
Then the problems began — a sequence of events which showed that what worked well in the design room couldn't negotiate the tricky desert where even commercial-grade cell towers often won't work.
Some of the problems, like the Border Patrol agents' laptops, were easily fixed. The computers were originally equipped with stylus pens, which proved impossible to use while driving, and the first mounts used to attach computers to patrol vehicles, failed.
Other problems lacked such a simple fix. Residents of Arivaca, Arizona, a small town where the Project 28 towers were located, wanted to know why camera towers with a 9-mile capability were placed 12 miles from the border. Border Patrol officials explained that placing the towers closer to the border limited their ability because of the hills. Then the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that the original price tag could soar as high as $10 to $30 billion if the towers were set all along the border.
The radar and ground sensors used also proved to be too sensitive, sometimes confusing raindrops for people, other times, bushes waving in the breeze would set them off. And, the terrain, lava fields, thick mesquite, and hilly land cobwebbed with washes, defeated the network's wireless system.
"The long and short of it is that Boeing was given $20.6 million to begin testing and fielding their new system," says Richard Stana, director of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice Issues, the agency that documented the errors on behalf of Congress.
After DHS rejected the original plan, Boeing absorbed much of the cost of repairing its faulty systems, spending twice as much as it had earned to try and repair the broken system.New plans arise
"Now, they're not going to replicate Project 28. But they are moving toward a similar installation," Stana says.
The newest program is supposed to begin in 2009 in the Tucson Sector but won't be completed along the southwest border until 2011.
For its part, Customs and Border Protection has backed away from its energetic embrace of Project 28, now saying it was merely a prototype for future projects. "It was widely reported that Project 28 was a failure," says Customs and Border Protection spokesman Barry Morrissey. "It was a success, but no one wanted to believe it."
The newest plan is the installation of two systems in the Tucson Sector, one in the central Arizona desert, AJO-1, and one near Sasabe, TUS-1, a cluster of 57 of the same type of towers throughout the desert.
Despite the problems with Project 28, the first $55.7 million contract was awarded to Boeing Corp. on June 26 and work was scheduled to begin soon, Morrissey says. However, land-use issues may delay the project until at least January 2009, possibly longer.
The second half of the contract, which includes technology, cameras, radar and ground sensors, has not yet been awarded. "It's safe to say it will also go to Boeing," he says.