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Protecting the homeland: the role of rural telcos.

Events since September 11, 2001, have caused a national stir among policy-makers and the technology industry to create funding and technology standards that would allow interoperability between multiple jurisdictions and levels of government.

It has taken more than two years for legislative funding mechanisms to begin the evolutionary path toward telecom infrastructure. Because project funding is only beginning to arrive at its destination, rural telcos have an opportunity coming over the horizon. Taking advantage of these opportunities will require a well-defined marketing effort and the ability to act collectively to address large scale, nationalized opportunities and localized interoperability requirements.

The idea of homeland security, and the successive responsibilities of the department bearing its name, has been amalgamated into a new federal concept representing overall security. In reality, however, hundreds of initiatives involving new partnerships in government and industry are taking center stage in the struggle to secure the homeland against a technically sophisticated and operationally capable group of adversaries that have demonstrated, and indeed embrace, terrorism as their tool of foreign policy.


Americans today face a potential, general terrorist threat in which planned, integrated operations are used to attack the homeland with weapons that are designed to maximize casualties in the most shocking (read "press-worthy") fashion. To counter this threat, many efforts intended to implement or improve threat detection are being channeled toward improving border security, cargo transportation monitoring, immigration identification and control, and a variety of other forms of infrastructure protection.

Remote Monitoring

The Department of Transportation's VOLPE Center has been working with officials from Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and U.S. Customs to develop technology systems to monitor and manage border activity. The limitation of staffing borders with people opens the gate for newer technology applications that involve remote audio/video monitoring.

One example of this is the Remote Video Inspection System (RVIS), a deployable network of video cameras connected to a consolidated monitoring location where remote INS agents can inspect traveler documents, view license plates and provide verbal commands to inspect the contents and containers of automobiles and trucks.

So far, INS has installed RVIS at 40 border locations. Connectivity for national security systems like RVIS is supported by terrestrial fiber or satellite networks that often can, at substantial expense, reach these remote locations.

Access control is only a single segment of the homeland defense equation, however. Many public safety and security entities have few interoperability options and face many "dead spots" where there simply are no existing communication options, much less any options for interoperability.

Interoperability at Work

During a national defense emergency or natural disaster, multiple emergency responders often find it difficult to communicate, given the scores of dissimilar and non-interoperable communications systems in use. To help resolve this problem, Alaska and the Department of Defense (DoD) have teamed together on the Alaskan Land Mobile Radio project (ALMR).

Lending further impetus for Alaska and the DoD to work together is the movement toward narrowband, the result of a government mandate to consolidate spectrum use into more efficient and non-interfering blocks to free up more spectrum for commercial use. Systems like ALMR frequently require waivers from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for joint frequency use by multiple enterprises using the 136 MHz - 162 MHz band of shared government and nongovernmental spectrum with secure encryption protocols.

The ALMR system links 87 sites operated by utilities, security and public safety, state agencies, the DoD and local emergency services with a P.25 network, and has primary and back-up emergency operations centers. Projects like the ALMR may become more commonplace as federal, state, local and commercial enterprises figure out how to work together. Government funds likely will give these efforts a mighty boost.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has worked to expedite federal funding through block grants to rapidly reach local targets. The House last year passed HR 2898, the E-911 Implementation Act of 2003, to amend Title I of the NTIA (47 U.S.C. 901 et seq.). This legislation was designed to provide grant funding for 911 emergency infrastructure costs. The Senate Commerce Committee also approved similar legislation, S. 1250.

Border Crossing

The border between the United States and Canada is one of the first lines of America's defense against terrorism. Roughly 4,000 miles of mostly wilderness separate the two nations in a line cutting across North America. Another 1,500 miles separate Alaska from British Columbia and the Yukon. This border region has been largely unguarded, as much of it meanders through nearly impassible terrain and frigid waters.

The borders between the United States and Canada and the United States and Mexico are home to more than 25 Native American tribal nations. Montana alone has three tribal nations, all within a close proximity to the Canadian border.

Even without the extreme winter weather, emergency communications with the outside world is more challenging than one might think because many rural areas of Montana are lower-tier markets that rarely see telecom competition.

Providing circuits in places like tribal, federal and state territories in Montana often is a function of bootstrapping ad-hoc infrastructures and making good use of items left behind by the now-defunct Touch America, a natural gas company that dashed its ship on the rocky shores of the late-1990s tech boom-bust cycle.

But tribal nations located near the borders of Canada and Mexico are of strategic importance from a telecommunications standpoint, and were addressed specifically in homeland security funding legislation. These areas likely will receive some of the proceeds of homeland security project funding or federal grant funding.

The INS and DoD also have contracted out a number of large-scale border security projects to large defense contractors requiring specific telecommunications support functions. Telcos with existing infrastructure, such as towers, fiber, radio spectrum blocks, as well as telecommunications engineers and professionals, are potential candidates for partnerships.

Connectivity Across Tribal Lands

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs also is heavily involved in emergency telecommunications services that tribal nations can use, not only to protect their own citizens, but also to enhance America's national homeland security.

Many tribal nations are located in rural and extremely remote areas, where massive interoperability issues exist for emergency services. The National Indian Country Telecommunications Infrastructure Consortium (NICTIC) was created to support President Bush's National Strategy for Homeland Security by coordinating efforts to build and improve telecommunications infrastructures throughout Indian Country.

"This national organization can serve as an engine to improve the telecommunications infrastructure throughout Indian Country," said Brian Burns, chief information officer-Indian affairs. The goals of the NICTIC initiative are:

* to provide government resources to assist tribal nations in developing and protecting telecommunications emergency infrastructures

* to develop multiple-use technologies that also can aid tribal nations in self-governance and economic development

* to provide forums for interoperability between tribal nations, federal, state and municipal emergency responders

Critical infrastructure protection is one of the needs that NICTIC is designed to support, furthering efforts to secure water supplies, transportation, government, power, telecommunications and information technology, banking, emergency services, defense, medical services and food supplies.

Bringing It All Together

Threat monitoring efforts involve a substantial integration of technological, communication, societal, governmental and economic systems. The real challenge lies in network integration. One of the longer term challenges, particularly in the realm of public safety, is sociological interoperability that takes into account the relative palatability and pragmatic effectiveness of varying technologies, disparate procurement environments, conflicting goals and competing blocks of radio spectrum. It quickly becomes obvious that the concept of effective homeland security relics on a vastly collaborative effort propelled by grassroots infrastructure and the collective strength of pockets of localized ingenuity.

Interoperability and homeland security issues are in some cases escalating the use and implementation of next generation technologies, in particular where innovation promises to close the gap on national security deficiencies.


Rural cooperatives likely will play a role that is greater than in the past, due to the significant need to solve multi-governmental and meshednetwork topology issues. Inasmuch as rural telcos will be sought out in broad efforts to complete infrastructures, this is an opportune time for cooperatives to hone their marketing skills and become familiar with funding flows and long-term opportunities.

Unlike past decades, legislative mechanisms now are in place to move more federal dollars for telecommunications services to rural locals that can play crucial roles in the homeland security effort. Not only will this funding come through grants, but also in the more desirable form of revenue-generating, long-term contracts for completing pieces of larger network infrastructures.

Rural providers frequently offer these services, although indirectly through contracts with larger, nationwide providers. New federal contracts for telecommunications services, wireless services and homeland security integration efforts offer potential for direct rural telco participation.

Inroads for Small Telcos

The last decade has seen a positive evolution in federal contracting practice, making it easier for small businesses and commercial entities to engage in federal contracting with substantially less red tape. Many small rural telcos also fit the Small Business Administration's definitions for small business, including HUBzone, which stands for historically underutilized business. Many rural telecom companies located in low-income and high-unemployment areas meet the qualifications for HUBzone certification.

But small telcos need not go it alone. Many of these potential large contracts could take one of three approaches: 1) use of rural telco infrastructure, 2) use of a third party, like AT & T or Qwest, to acquire rural telcos through existing relationships, or 3) individual contracts with telcos through a telecommunications consortium.

Rural telcos may garner more weight as a consortium for federal telecommunications and other large contracts than having the "big guys" resell their services. By participating more directly, telcos could reap more dollars through direct contracting to build out infrastructure.

With federal dollars rapidly moving to grassroots levels, the evolution in procurement practices and the search for innovation, it is clear that the market has changed. Rural telecom companies are well positioned to forge a new role in helping to defend America's homeland.

Maureen Rhemann is managing partner and Joe Rhemann is managing director of Telecommunications & Business Strategies Group, a strategy consulting firm specializing in business strategy for telecommunications firms, Fortune 500 companies, and the federal government []. They can be reached at and
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Author:Rhemann, Maureen; Rhemann, Joe
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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