The Oregonian Foments Controversy about OWIN Project

The Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network aims to connect first responders throughout the state. Its implementation is pending approval from the state legislature.Did you notice the headline last week?

It said, "Blunders will cost you $107 million."

It was a banner headline on page 1 of The Oregonian describing the fact that audits had been conducted regarding a major state public safety communications infrastructure program, the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network, or OWIN for short. Audits always find problems and this one was no exception.

But, from a journalistic perspective, the headline was very misleading. It should have been something like this:  "Audit Finds Problems with OWIN Program."

  • Blunders? No. The problems were alleged problems pointed out by auditors.
  • Will cost you $107 million? No. True, the price tag for the project had risen by $107 million after the Oregon Department of Transportation took OWIN over from the State Police and found that certain costs had been underestimated. The truth is that it won't cost "you" as an individual anything. If the project moves forward, it will be paid for primarily by state bond money which will be contained within the approved state budget.

It's also true that the opening price tag for the project a couple years ago was in the range of $900 million. Good work by state agency officials to generate partnerships among a long list of local governments had trimmed that total down to $414 million. A fact The Oregonian conveniently forgot to mention. The $414 million was a new base against which ODOT officials forecast the need for an additional $107 million over the life of the OWIN project.

Other key facts missed by The Oregonian:

  • The rationale for a robust public safety communications system is to avoid here what happened in New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. There, first responders were not able to talk each other as they tried to deal with that unthinkable disaster. The goal here is to make sure all public safety officers can talk to each other all the time, no matter where they are located throughout the state.
  • The Federal Communications Commission has set a deadline, in two years, by which all state systems must move to a narrow-banding approach. There is no alternative but to make the kind of investments the OWIN program proposes.
  • Communications systems in four state agencies – State Police, ODOT, Forestry and Corrections – are outmoded and will be replaced by the OWIN investments. If OWIN does not go forward, the communications systems will have to be replaced anyway.
  • Money for OWIN, if allocated by the legislature, will not come from the state general fund. It will be state bond money. So, to put a point on it, you could cut OWIN entirely and hardly make a dime's worth of difference in the current state budget picture.

A lot rides on the OWIN decision. The key rationale for the project, which already has been started around the state, is to provide added public safety protection for the public.

Public safety protection warrants a state investment – or at least even-handed treatment by The Oregonian.

(CFM represents Harris Corporation, which is competing for radio systems investments if the state makes such investments.)