Equipment & Gear, News

State to Ditch Emergency Wireless Project

ALBANY, N.Y. — State officials are preparing to pull the plug on a $2 billion statewide emergency radio network that has been beset with a host of problems during its critical first testing period in Erie County.

The Paterson administration is likely to wait to officially turn to other alternatives until after an Aug. 29 deadline for the project’s vendor, M/A-Com, to meet rigorous state standards for the system’s viability. The system is first being tested in Erie and Chautauqua counties before the state would let it go statewide.

Word of the likely pullback comes as State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this morning will release what officials say is a scathing report on the tests performed in Western New York. “It will be a very damning report saying that M/A-Com failed to meet a number of deadlines and goals,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said DiNapoli will recommend to Gov. David A. Paterson that “absent any immediate progress — the contract be rescinded.”

The DiNapoli audit is in advance of an independent assessment of the program by a private company hired to help the state determine if the wireless system should go statewide or end with its troubled testing in Western New York. The contractor’s report, due out next week, also is expected to be critical, officials said.

Paterson offered little optimism for M/A-Com. A new round of budget trimming Wednesday to deal with the state’s eroding finances included $40 million in savings because of “delays” in the wireless network’s implementation. Officials said that certain purchases the state intended to make in the current fiscal year won’t be made because of the delays, meaning it can take $40 million off the books it was planning to spend.

State officials Wednesday night sought to dispel talk that the fiscal move indicates the state is preparing to pull the plug on the wireless system. Jack Downey, a Paterson spokesman, said the $40 million in savings action “has nothing to do with the decision the state will make at the end of this month about whether it will proceed with the project.”

Asked if the project is dead, Paterson at a budget news conference Wednesday leaned over to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who whispered something to the governor. “The speaker just said to me it’s not dead, but it’s in critical condition,” the governor said.

M/A-Com officials could not be reached to comment Wednesday night.

The Buffalo News last month reported that a crucial round of testing of the system, pushed into high gear following communication breakdowns during the 2001 terrorist attacks, had been postponed in Erie and Chautauqua counties because of a new set of problems.

The head of the state Office for Technology, Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, told The News that she had begun making contingency plans in case M/A-Com failed to live up to its contract by the end of August.

The system has passed a number of hurdles in Chautauqua County, but officials in Erie County say they have seen a wide array of problems, including spotty coverage, lost signals and poor audio quality.

Erie County itself already has said it will not be full partners in the wireless system, in part because of the equipment and other costs associated with opting into the system.

Proponents, led by Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace, have said the state desperately needs to improve communications for first responders. The sheriff cited the communication lapses during the manhunt for fugitive Ralph “Bucky” Phillips.

Lurking in the background has been Motorola, which bid double the M/A-Com offer. It has made clear to state officials, sources say, that it is still very interested in providing statewide wireless services to New York. Whether the state can afford the ambitious system, given its worsening fiscal condition, remains a major question.

It could not be learned Wednesday night how much the state has spent on the system so far. The contract calls for M/A-Com to pay all the testing costs, though the state is believed to have purchased some equipment over the past couple of years.