Virtual Fence for Mexico Border Is Put Off

August Cole, Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2008

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is putting off plans for a virtual fence being built by Boeing Co. along the Mexico border and instead will focus on getting a physical fence in place as it tries to implement a border-security plan that is already late and over budget.

A virtual fence being built by Boeing along the Mexico border is being delayed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is set on getting a physical fence in place.

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Boeing has struggled to overcome technical problems on its virtual fence, part of a contract called SBInet that also includes physical fences. The virtual-fence system was first tested on a 28-mile stretch that was originally planned to be ready more than a year ago; it isn’t operational.

The Boeing system was supposed to let Border Patrol agents handle more territory with the help of a series of towers capable of electronically monitoring rough stretches of the border.

According to Jayson Ahern, U.S. Customs and Border Protection deputy commissioner, the highest priority is to put out a system of physical fences and barriers that will keep people and vehicles from illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

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The physical fence is also overbudget and needs $400 million more than is budgeted, according to people familiar with the situation. As costs climb, the department is seeking to redirect funding from other programs, including the virtual fence, toward the physical barrier.

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A Boeing spokeswoman said the Chicago company had been asked to stand down on its work in July for reasons not related to cost or performance. At the time, there were environmental-review issues for placing the virtual fence’s towers. Mr. Ahern expects that to be resolved shortly.

The 670-mile physical fence consists of 370 miles of wire-mesh barriers intended to stop people and 300 miles of shorter barriers designed to stop vehicles. The GAO estimates that costs for the wire-mesh fence have risen to $7.5 million a mile, about $3.5 million a mile more than initially expected. As of August, 187 miles of the wire-mesh fence had been completed.

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Boeing has gotten about $933 million for its work under a series of task orders for the contract.

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