January 15, 2009 By Matt Williams
Chalk up another defeat for interoperable communications networks. The New York state Office for Technology (OFT) announced Thursday it has terminated its contract with M/A-COM, the vendor building the statewide wireless public safety network.
The OFT gave M/A-COM notice for payment of a $50 million standby letter of credit, as agreed upon in the contract. Since the contract was awarded in April 2004, the state said it has spent $54 million in operating expenses for the project.
The OFT said M/A-COM failed to cure 15 of 19 deficiencies that were outlined in an Aug. 29, 2008, default letter. Problems outlined in the default notice included high failure rates for mobile radios and other portable devices; multiple site outages that rendered the network unavailable for 43 hours during the July test period; and glitches with the network's uninterrupted roaming feature that in some cases prevented the use of radios for emergency communications. According to the notice, the wireless network failed two earlier tests -- one in fall 2007 and another in spring 2008 -- before another unsuccessful assessment in July 2008.
New York state CIO Melodie Mayberry-Stewart told Government Technology during an interview on Sept. 5, 2008, that she was optimistic the problems could be fixed. Her optimism was apparently dashed on Thursday.
"We are extremely disappointed M/A-COM has failed to demonstrate the reliability of their OpenSky technology, especially its network and subscriber radios, which are the core of the system," said Mayberry-Stewart in a news release. "Per the terms of the contract, we have given M/A-COM every opportunity to remediate existing deficiencies. However, the state's testing concluded M/A-COM is unable to deliver a system that meets the needs of New York state's first responders as stated in the contract."
M/A-COM was acquired in September 2008 by Cobham, a UK-based aerospace and defense developer. Cobham representatives were unavailable for comment Thursday.
Angela Liotta, the acting media relations director of the OFT, told Government Technology that during the most recent testing period in November 2008, the network had 14.5 cumulative hours of downtime for the month, which is well above the U.S. standard of only 52.6 minutes per year. In addition, she said 29 percent of the mobile and portable radios were malfunctioning, which is well above the maximum 3 percent failure rate of a typical consumer product.
"In the consumer world, you would never buy a TV that didn't work 29 percent of the time," Liotta said.
Liotta said the radios' emergency call buttons were doing "kooky" things. Occasionally the system would send an alarm simultaneously to all users' radios, when in actuality nobody sent an alarm.
Craig Settles, a wireless industry analyst, said Thursday that the failure of the New York state wireless network is a good example of why a national public safety network won't work. By the time you start a project, the technology is usually obsolete, he said
"This New York project is pretty good example of that, because when they started the idea four years ago, radio technology was still in vogue -- and with a lot of these old guard folks it still is. It was at the cusp of its sunset because the IP and wireless technology is really where everything is going," Settles said. "It started off with an RFP for a soon-to-be obsolete or a less-than-ideal technology, and then by the time they got to the piloting of it -- not even the deployment -- they realized this isn't going to work."
The OFT said Thursday it is beginning to draw up contingency plans for the wireless public safety network.
"The state's fully committed to delivering a public safety network to our first responders," Liotta said.