Talking to the WSP: Did Campaign Contributions Make a Difference?

Many law enforcement agencies choose to contract with the Washington State Patrol for radio communications. They have had coverage problems, according to my sources. The WSP previously built their system to cover the freeways, not the woods or other areas that are covered by State Park Rangers, local agencies and sheriff’s departments or the Washington Department of Fish and Game.

After 9/11 the Feds wanted to increase inter-operability–a nightmare. There were UHF, VHF, trunked systems and digital. Without a lot of hardware these systems can’t talk to each other. So the Feds created a standard, P25 digital, and some agencies purchased radios capable of the standard. The WSP could never quite seem to catch up and never went digital. Nevertheless, the WSP became very interested in becoming the radio communications provider for law enforcement.

Thus, the WSP has been very aggressive about trying to take over all radio spectrum and communications as a single provider for law enforcement in Washington. But some members of the law enforcement community have suggested that management at the WSP has had problems grasping the complexity and needs of their users. The WSP could not or would not upgrade their repeaters to eliminate coverage gaps and poor service to non-WSP users was the result. WDFW is trying to develop their own system to get out from under the WSP costs and lack of service.

Many agencies are presently at the mercy of Motorola because of Motorola’s monopoly built upon its proprietary technology. Even if Motorola allows other radio manufacturers to utilize its technology on behalf of various law enforcement agencies, the preliminary word is that this may still cost thousands per radio for software and equipment to “re-flash” or re-program radios. Non-dedicated but supposedly compatible radios from different manufacturers may work with flash program changes, but not perfectly. There are often volume and other differences that are quite frustrating to the officers–they seem trivial; but in the field when an officer can’t hear, “minor frustrations” can be life threatening. Remember how compatibility issues between New York City’s law enforcement and fire fighting personnel became an issue in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center?

Sometime in 2011, the FCC gave the Washington State Patrol and other agencies a deadline to free up large swaths of the air waves. The WSP was desperate to comply with the new Federal Communications Commission regulations. The FCC gave law enforcement a deadline- January 1, 2013- for state and local agencies to free up space on the airwaves for more users or risk losing reception in nearly one-third of the state.

The WSP thought it could quickly replace its radio system for at least $12 million less than expected by signing a no-bid contract with Motorola Solutions- a plan that sidestepped the competitive bidding process. State officials claimed at the time that the partnership with the Department of Justice would lower the cost of the technology upgrade to $41 million.

At least one WSP commander was exuberant in expressing the feelings shared by many in Olympia and the federal government when he crowed, “It’s an opportunity we can’t pass up that saves us a lot of money and gets us where we need to be!” The Legislature agreed that interfacing with the new DOJ system would be quick fix, preventing the loss of coverage areas expected as a result of the FCC’s new regulations. The legislature gave WSP $40 million with more anticipated in 2013.

The Department of Justice came calling on the WSP last September with the message, “DON’T BUILD YOUR OWN, JOIN US!” The state was apparently already connecting some of its radios to the DOJ system but there were limits as to how to connect agencies not involved in law enforcement.

The Federal Way Police Department and Valley Communications are not part of the WSP Radio network system. Valley Communications utilized a “patch” system via the LERN network in the event local agencies need to communicate directly with WSP or Federal agencies. WSP’s system will not impact the 800 MHz system in King County.

The WSP’s priority was to meet the FCC’s deadline to free up space on the airwaves. The federal system required Motorola equipment and software. Details on the cost of radios were not expected until after contracts were signed and some folks had questions about the plan. But after all, converting to the new system was a mere $26 million- with $9 million for other work. Motorola offered a large discount and besides- the WSP already had $32 million in its budget for the contract.

But one of the critics complained, “Seems to me that sole-sourcing essentially locks them into that one vendor and they’re not going to have any options.”

Nevertheless, one of the WSP’s point men, Bob Schwent, assured lawmakers “interoperability” would actually improve! Motorola still would not answer questions- at least from the media- until after the contract was signed.

Now it turns out there are big problems with the Washington State Patrol’s $41 million and counting plan. A new federal audit has described the DOJ Network as “having an uncertain future”. In fact, the DOJ inspector general is now questioning what the agency has to show after 13 years of upgrading its law enforcement radios and spending $356 million. See IG Report.

The Obama administration wants to cancel the program!
Implications for the State Patrol are unclear. Bob Schwent, commander of the State Patrol’s electronic services division claims the system in the Northwest actually continues to work well. “It’s just that they’re not going to fund any expansion of it,” he said.

One state lawmaker says the audit raises “serious questions” about the State Patrol’s move onto a system controlled by the federal government. Since the program has already been shelved nationally, he questions whether it can survive.

According to the TNT, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, believes that it is likely the feds will be canceling the program- or offering the network to the state to maintain. Schwent admits that possibility.
“The WSP could continue operating,” he said. “We’d have some reductions in what we can do and how we continue to do it.” And maybe just a little additional expense?

The Department of Justice has already decided not to expand its law enforcement radio network because the design might not handle “significant advances in new technologies.” Exactly what the critics were saying to the WSP while the DOJ was quietly abandoning the project!

The DOJ now has concerns about the costs due to not being able to purchase equipment from Motorola’s competition, according to the audit. Again, exactly what some critics in Washington state were maintaining all along. When the State Patrol signed the $26 million no-bid contract with Motorola, it claimed that partnering with the federal system was some $12 million cheaper than building its own.

Did the DOJ know all this when they persuaded ed our state lawmakers to come on board? The Washington Attorney General’s office needs to look into various causes of action against the federal government or tell the people of our state why it is not doing so!

Just a few months after the WSP entered into the contract, the IG was warning that delays in the system are potentially jeopardizing the lives of law enforcement and emergency personnel- and the public! The audit stated that it is impossible to determine the true cost of the IWN program!

The WSP is keeping an optimistic face on things, however, and apparently still claims that it saved some $12 million by linking to the federal radio network. Some law enforcement agencies might have to retrofit or buy new radios in order to communicate with the Motorola system. The Department of Fish and Wildlife will have to purchase new radios at a cost of $1.5 million but that does not include the other Motorola proprietary equipment and software that is required to make things work.

The State Patrol is reportedly paying Motorola an average of $5,800 per radio for 2,400 radios. For agencies with less money to spend, replacing radios with Motorola equipment might not be necessary. But that depends on whether Motorola is willing to let its competitors use Motorola technology. It all makes you wonder whether any of these problems developed because of something to do with state and national politics. You think campaign contributions might have had anything to do with it?

As we publish this article EU Merger regulators just cleared a historical merger of Motorola Mobility (smart phones) and Google. At the same time, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division is approving the Google-Motorola deal while expressing significant concerns about how Google uses some of its proprietary technology. Google just received approval from the US Department of Justice for its $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility.

Read more here.

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