$800M later, statewide radio service still plagued with problems

Auditor general: Clearly, there has been a debacle

HARRISBURG, Pa. - More than $800 million has been spent on the Pennsylvania Statewide Radio Network, and most people involved with the daily use and implementation of the system concede it does not properly work.

Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania State Police, who have been in charge of the project for five years, told 69 News that a plan is in place to fix the system.

The project began in 1996, with a price tag of $179 million, and the objective of creating a single radio network for state police troopers and many other agencies across Pennsylvania to use.

From the beginning, things went wrong, and year after year, the people running the system kept coming back to lawmakers, asking for more money to fix it.

"Clearly, there has been a debacle," said Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The auditor general and others describe situations where officers were put in dangerous situations because they were unable to communicate with colleagues.

"You had troopers, even in the Eric Frein manhunt, who weren't able to use these radios. Something has clearly gone wrong with both the contracting and the technical capabilities," DePasquale said.

The contract was initially awarded to M/A-COM Incorporated, and in 2009 was taken over by Harris Corporation.

Harris spokeswoman Pam Cowan said the company stands by its work on the system, officially called PA-STARNet, telling 69 News in part: "The system exceeds the coverage requirements in the original contract. Harris is proud of the success of the 800 MHz PA-STARNet Radio System that we, and our predecessors, helped to develop and have maintained during the past 18 years."

Harris, though, may be one of the only remaining staunch defenders of the radio network.

"For me, in my personal opinion, it gets a failing grade in Pennsylvania," said Major Diane Stackhouse, who directs the Bureau of Communications and Information Services, the division of the Pennsylvania State Police that runs STARNet.

The project originally fell under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Office of Administration before being transferred to the state police on July 1, 2012.

"We were the biggest cynics of the radio system," said Stackhouse, "so, who better to take it over from a public safety standpoint?"

Stackhouse said Pennsylvania has benefited in some ways from all of the money spent, pointing specifically to the infrastructure now in place associated with the project.

"The commonwealth owns 173 high-profile steel towers, as well as a very robust microwave system," she said.

That said, she makes no bones about the fact that the main radio communication system within STARNet, called OpenSky, does not work as well as it should. She acknowledged that the network has large dead spots that make communication with the radios impossible in certain situations, especially when they are being used in rural areas.

"I will say that OpenSky is the piece that was the poor investment, and the OpenSky remains, to this day unreliable and unpredictable and still suffers from software problems," Stackhouse said.

Stackhouse insists that her agency, which is asking for $56.4 million for the radio system in its latest budget request, has a plan to fix the issue.

"I am here representing every trooper and every state agency employee who uses the communication system," she said. "I take my responsibility very seriously."

She said OpenSky is being phased out of the network, a process she expects to take five years, and being replaced by another system known as P-25.

In the meantime, until at least 2021, Harris Corporation is still working with the state on the project, but Stackhouse emphatically declares that her agency will make sure the checkered history of the project will not repeat itself and it will be money well spent.

"I ensure trooper safety. I answer to the troopers on the road. There is nothing like being held accountable, and the state police hold people accountable when things don't work," she said.

Some lawmakers in Harrisburg, though, are critical of Stackhouse's superiors at the state police for not holding Harris Corporation more accountable for the problems with the project and the cost.

At a Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on February 23, Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw was blunt when grilling state police officials, including Commissioner Tyree Blocker, about the project.

"Since 2012, you're telling me you haven't done anything to go back and collect any of this money for the citizens of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I don't understand that at all," Yaw said.

His fellow Republican, state Sen. Pat Browne, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was equally incredulous, asking if his committee could facilitate a meeting with Pennsylvania legal officials and state police to discuss the possibility of trying to get some of the money back.

Auditor General DePasquale, however, told 69 News he thinks recovery of the money is "highly unlikely" at this point.

Whether any of the $800 million is returned to the state, Stackhouse is focused on fixing the system, and said this time is different.

"I share those same frustrations every day, but I am proactive and I'm doing something about it, and this is the future of our radio system. It's gonna be money well spent," she said.

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