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US cancels 'virtual fence' along Mexican border. What's Plan B?

After $1 billion spent, the US has 53 miles of 'virtual fence' in Arizona. The high-tech project is too costly to extend along the whole US-Mexico border, the Homeland Security chief said Friday.

By Cheryl SullivanStaff writer / January 15, 2011

A prototype surveillance tower for a "virtual fence" along the US-Mexico border. The project has been cancelled after the Department of Homeland Security concluded it was not cost-effective.

US Customs and Border Protection

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The dream of a high-tech barrier stretching from one end of America’s southern border to the other – originally hailed by then-President George W. Bush as “the most technically advanced border security initiative” ever – is officially burst.

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In announcing that it would pull the plug on the troubled “virtual fence” project, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it would instead pursue a region-by-region approach, with different parts of the US border protected in different ways as dictated by terrain and other area-specific conditions.

“This new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.

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Almost from the onset, the virtual fence – known as the Secure Border Initiative network, or SBInet – ran into problems. As pilot projects were built in two spots in Arizona along the border with Mexico, cost overruns mounted. Just as worrisome was that the technology – in the form of camera-topped surveillance towers that was supposed to pinpoint for border agents in a distant command post the exact location of illegal border-crossers – was often flummoxed by conditions on the ground such as terrain and weather.

“Cameras don’t come down off the poles and grab people by the ankle and arrest them,” T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council representing border patrol agents, told the Monitor in 2009. The technology, he said at the time, was effective only on level ground; in terrain with mountains and valleys it was ineffective beyond a few hundred feet.

In all, the government spent almost $1 billion on the virtual fence project since its inception in 2005, as contractor Boeing Co. endeavored to work out the kinks and refine SBInet’s capabilities. In the end, though, the cost per mile of coverage made it grossly inefficient: It is operational along 53 miles of Arizona’s 386-mile border with Mexico.

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