Virtual Fence Construction Starts In Arizona

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the so-called "virtual fence," or SBInet, along the nation's southern border is ready for prime time. Construction of the first permanent stretch of towers meant to detect intrusion has just begun in Arizona.

Here's what U.S. Customs and Border Protection has to say about the so-called virtual fence along the nation's southern border. They say it's ready for primetime. Remember this is not a real fence. It's a virtual fence, known as SBI-Net. And construction has just begun on the first permanent stretch of towers meant to detect intrusions. NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tucson, Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: Nine towers, each up to 140 feet high, are going up along a stretch of southern Arizona desert southwest of Tucson. Each tower has radars, cameras and a microwave link to other towers. If that all sounds familiar it's because the location and the technology are similar to a prototype deployed in late 2007. But SBI-Net executive director Mark Borkowski says this time there's a big difference.

Mr. MARK BORKOWSKI (Executive director, SBI-Net): The prototype didn't work, but the system now does work.

ROBBINS: The Boeing Corporation built the prototype with radar and cameras which couldn't stand up to the Arizona wind and heat. And the towers couldn't convey information fast enough. Boeing is still the contractor, but the technology has been changed, tested and retested. Expectations have been lowered, too.

Mr. BORKOWSKI: When SBI and SBI-Net started a lot of people saw it as the be all and end all. We're going to put this thing on the border and it's going to secure the borders. Now, looking back on that that was sort of a foolish way to think about it.

ROBBINS: Now the thinking is that the SBInet can provide real-time information so people can act on it. For instance, there are sensors in the ground along the border, but without the cameras and radar, border patrol agents have no idea what trips them. Tucson Sector Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Robert Boatwright…

Mr. ROBERT BOATWRIGHT (Border Patrol): Is it a cow? Is it a deer? Is it one person? Is it 20 person? Is it 3,000 pounds of marijuana and four AK-47s?

ROBBINS: With the SBInet, Boatwright says agents can respond or not respond depending on the threat. By 2014, the government plans to cover almost all of the U.S.-Mexico land border with similar towers at an estimated cost of $6.7 billion.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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