Silicon Prairie May Be Fertile Ground for Emerging Homeland Security Biz

Silicon Valley — the sprawling suburbs of San Francisco and San Jose — first emerged during the 1960s as a prime location for the Pentagon to conduct research and development work during the Cold War. Will the Silicon Prairie — the stretch of land between Chicago and downstate Champaign-Urbana — serve the same function for the War on Terror?

That may be so, if recent developments among local, state and federal governments are any indication. Increasingly, Chicago-area local and state government officals are eyeing wireless technologies as integral to the emergency response planning for homeland security, as they seek ways to communicate more effectively with the federal government, experts said last week at a panel discussion in Chicago sponsored by the AeA, formerly known as the American Electronics Association.

Solid Position

“Illinois is well-positioned to lead in the development of new technologies for homeland security that can be quickly transferred into products, services and jobs,” said Ed Longanecker, executive director of the AeA’s Midwest council, and a speaker at the event.

The panel, sponsored by the AeA’s Midwest federal, state and local government project, entitled “Communications and Technology Uses in Natural Disasters and Emergencies,” was held in downtown Chicago.

Experts from the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the City of Chicago, and leading consulting companies and law firms said cities are facing a “dire” need to create feasible emergency response plans for homeland security — and natural disasters.

This month marks the third anniversary of the creation of the federal Department of Homeland Security, but increasingly, the federal government is realizing how important local, first responders are to securing the nation, according to Hardik Bhatt, chief information officer of the city of Chicago.

Along those lines, the city this summer plans to issue a Request for Procurement (RFP) to implement a city-wide WiFi network, consisting of 7,500 antennas and costing US$18 million, said Bhatt.

WiFi Network

The development of the WiFi network, as well as collaborative projects between high tech trade associations, government labs, like the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, and small businesses, may make Illinois a center of homeland security technology development.

One of the key things that local, state and federal homeland security officials need to work on is ensuring that these WiFi and other communications technologies are interoperable, at all levels, said Dereck Orr, program manager, public safety communications systems, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration.

The only way that will happen is through the development of national standards that will define how the diverse components — federal, state and local — of the homeland security infrastructure will interoperate, said Orr. The government has, in the past, successfully created such communications standards for other purposes, said Orr.

One project that is getting a lot of attention now is called Safecom, which the Department of Homeland Security is leading to promote improved radio communications for emergency response agencies. An earlier version of the plan was issued in 2004, but this new version, released in recent days, describes how networks should be designed to incorporate both wired and wireless links.

Steps are being taken by NIST and others to help implement the standards, said Orr.

On the regional level, though, the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, is taking the initiative to turn those standards into salable technologies for homeland defense. Last month, a homeland security advisory panel was launched by the governor, hoping to spur economic development in the homeland security market. A recent report by Harvard University recognized Illinois as a leader in the emerging homeland security technology market. “We’re committed to fostering the growth and the development of the homeland security industry,” said Blagojevich.

Silicon Valley, take note. Silicon Prairie is coming of age.

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