Q&A with New York CIO James T. Dillon

New York launches a $400 Million Wireless Network.

by / December 30, 2002
In January 2000, New York Gov. George Pataki established the Statewide Wireless Network (SWN) under the New York State Office for Technology. One of the largest communications technology projects in the state's history, and the first comprehensive upgrade to the state's communications infrastructure in more than 30 years, the project will implement an integrated wireless radio network with statewide coverage. This will provide for interagency and intergovernmental communications, as well as encourage partnerships with local governments to address their communications needs.

In June 2002, the Office for Technology issued an RFP for the project, which is expected to cost $400 million over the next few years. New York CIO James T. Dillon spoke about the project's planning, implementation and challenges encountered.

Q: How did the events of 9-11 affect planning for a statewide wireless network?

A: Well, the need for an integrated wireless communication system was well known before 9-11, and it was in the planning stages for a considerable period of time before 9-11. Really the genesis for the move toward an integrated system was the age and condition of the current communication systems. Initially, we were just looking at the criminal and justice system. But what 9-11 did was emphasize the need for an integrated system that includes not just criminal justice, but transportation, emergency services and different levels of government -- state and local. This would include state agencies such as the State Police; the Department of Transportation; the Thruway Authority; environmental conservation, where you have Encon officers; and parks and recreation, where you have park police. And it would also include local jurisdictions -- and when I say include, I mean making it available to them. We are not forcing people to do anything. We are just going to build a very strong, very up-to-date system that will be refreshed over time -- one that will be available to all first responders and transportation systems in the state regardless of whether they are state or local.

Q: So for a local agency to opt into the system, they just have to be on the right frequencies?

A: Yes, the right frequencies. But there are other issues such as governance and dispatch they would have to buy into as well. Sometimes that can be a difficult thing because it is a matter of control and priorities, but we feel our planning process has been all-inclusive. We have had a users group in existence for several years now, with active participation by local government and by all the different stakeholders at the state level. So we think the planning process has been a strong one.

Q: For other states considering a similar integrated wireless network, one early recommendation would be to involve everyone in the planning stage all the way through?

A: Right from the start, right from day one. Everyone who is a potential participant, a potential user, involve them in the process.

Q: For local agencies and governments, what differences would they have to adopt to buy into the system?

A: The frequencies in the long run will be a constant; you are going to end up on the same frequencies. But when you get into the specifics of buying in, it is a matter of infrastructure, of hardware, of procedures, of dispatch methodologies and dispatch priorities, and those kinds of things. But with all of these, it is not a matter of us dictating and then having people decide one way or another whether they are going to participate. Rather, all these are a matter of the planning within the user and working groups, and all the things that are going on behind the scenes to involve everyone from the start. So I think as a result of those decisions, as the system starts to evolve after the RFP is awarded, we are going to find more and more potential users will become real users.

Q: So all the potential users have been very involved in developing the whole operational approach to the network?

A: Yes, although, naturally, we have had some counties more active than others -- Erie County, Westchester County, Tompkins County, Monroe County to name a few. These represent different parts of the state, different sizes, different levels of complexity. So because we have had a number of very active local jurisdictions, that has enabled us to extrapolate out what we figure the whole state will be looking for. It is a big state.

Q: How long will it take until the new system is in place and working?

A: It's a long time frame. And to know for sure, we have to wait until we get the RFP responses. We will be grading the RFPs, but we have to take into account what the industry experts tell us. In issuing the RFP, we have laid out certain parameters of what we would like, but we will have to compare those to what the responders to the RFP tell us is possible. And we do face some real challenges; cost is only one of them. We are a state with tremendous differences in population density and in geography. We are as diverse as New York City and the Adirondacks. And we also have a very long border with Canada. Canada apportions its bandwidth for commercial and noncommercial uses in different ways, including how they set aside emergency service bandwidth. We are working those issues out with the help of the federal government, including the FCC.

Q: Are there technical challenges that have been obvious virtually from the outset?

A: One certainly is tying in the existing infrastructure with regard to towers. In the Adirondacks, where we have a very large 6 million-acre park with a separate Adirondack Park agency, and elsewhere where there are wild land and forest preserves, we are taking our time to be very careful to minimize any environmental impact of the system. In fact, we are separating out environmental impact as an entry-level criteria as opposed to just something that is rated in the RFP. So the responders to the RFP have to demonstrate that they have taken into account environmental concerns before we will even allow them to have their bid considered.

Q: And actual implementation is expected to start next year?

A: Yes. It, of course, will be a multiyear project, and the $400 million in funding will roll out over a multiyear period. But we will be commencing next year.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor