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Feds Weigh Establishment Of Interstate Communications System

Government will link existing networks to create the system and will pay for entry and exit points for those who use agreed-upon standards, White House CIO says.
The Bush administration is exploring the possibility of creating an "interstate communications expressway," patterned after the interstate highway system, to quicken the exchange of homeland-security information among federal, state, and local governments, the CIO of the White House Office of Homeland Security told attendees Monday at the annual conference of the National Association of State CIOs in St. Louis.

Steve Cooper, special assistant to the president and senior director for information integration at Homeland Security, said the government would link existing networks to create the expressway. In addition, Washington would pay for "off and on ramps" for states to gain access to this new information superhighway. "Here's the catch," he told the state CIOs. "If you don't use the stake-in-the-ground agreed-upon standards and architecture, you pay to connect and you build your own ramp. It's that simple."

Cooper said the federal government wouldn't dictate standards and architectures but would develop them jointly with the states. However, once the standards and architectures are determined, states must adhere to them in order to avoid the toll to ride the network.

Cooper said he was careful in choosing the word "interstate" instead of "national" in describing the proposed network. "Interstate isn't politically charged," he said. "People know exactly what it means; it's widely accepted. National conjures up a hierarchy" with Washington "calling the shots."

State CIOs liked the idea not only of a single network to exchange information, but that the federal government would pay for it. Unlike the federal government, which can run a deficit, most states must balance their budgets and often don't have money to spend on major IT initiatives. Cooper estimated the network would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, though he said it's too early to determine the exact cost. He also said he didn't know how the government would pay for it but pointed out that Congressional approval would be needed.

Kentucky CIO Aldona Valicenti said accepting federally endorsed standards wouldn't bother most state CIOs. Though the idea of the network would be to ease the exchange of homeland security information, there's no reason why other types of information couldn't transverse it, even commercial data, he said. Indeed, employing one type of technology to address a wide range of processes is a leitmotif of Bush administration technology managers.

Planners of the original interstate highway system during the Cold War years a half-century ago weren't concerned about the movement of goods and civilians--today's primary users--but to facilitate the transport of military equipment and personnel. Today, Cooper notes, drivers may occasionally see a convoy of National Guard trucks carrying weekend warriors crawl along.