Window on Shipments

Window on Shipments

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection soon will deliver an Internet portal that gives companies a real-time window on the status of their international shipments. From its side of the window the agency will use the portal to improve its processes and promote supply-chain security.

The ACE Secure Data Portal is the first rollout in a $1.5 billion, five-year program to revamp the Automated Commercial Environment, said Laurie Dempsey, a team leader for the project at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. She told delegates at BDP International''s 14th Annual Import/Export Trade Compliance Seminar in Philadelphia that 40 importers have signed up to participate in the portal and training will commence this summer. The agency wants to expand this to 1,100 participants by the end of the year.

Driving the project is the need to update aging technology at a time when Customs'' workload is growing, she explained. In addition, the agency has to comply with legislative mandates and meet the demands of an increasingly complex operational environment. Twenty government agencies deal with portal-related activities, she said, and about 100 agencies use the information it generates.

A major part of the new environment is security. "ACE will enhance our targeting capabilities," said Dempsey, by providing better information on shipments and facilitating the sharing of information between multiple government agencies. According to Dempsey, the portal is critical to the Container Security Initiative, a project to establish U.S. Customs officials at foreign superports. "We hope to get the big picture," she said, using the information received via ACE to build a more accurate overview of cargo movements in and out of the United States. "Our goal is to track all the information we are receiving from you."

The payback for the commercial sector is reduced processing costs and more timely information, explained Dempsey. "We want to give you a window into your data so you can react faster," she said. The portal enables companies to access the information that Customs has on them and gives the agency a more comprehensive picture of the organizations it is dealing with. For example the Accounts Tab page displays all relevant details about a company including products and relevant contacts. "Currently, Customs has not got anything that integrates company information," she said.

The most "exciting" page for the trade is Reports Tab, Dempsey said. This screen displays a customized report on cargo exams and "you can drill down and find out about discrepancies," she said. The information can be downloaded into Microsoft or Exel spreadsheets. The screen also presents a quick summary of the company''s compliance profile.

The Significant Activity Log Tab is a tool for communicating with Customs that captures information currently recorded on paper. The idea for this screen came from the trade, Dempsey noted. The tab is a record of the exchanges that have occurred between a company and Customs. For example, enterprises can document phone conversations with agency officials that have taken place. The ultimate aim is to provide a repository for all communications with Customs, she said.

The agency has mapped out an aggressive timetable for the web-enabled version of ACE. Release 2 now is being rolled out and establishes account profiles, an action plan and significant activity log tabs. Release 3 is scheduled for the end of 2003 or beginning of 2004 and will introduce payment features that enable users to aggregate statements and pay Customs monthly, Dempsey said. "Automated truck manifests will be in Release 4," which is due to be introduced in spring or summer 2004.

Subsequent releases, up to Release 8 in 2006-2007, will introduce many more features including the automation of bond procedures and full cargo and conveyance tracking. As the program progresses it will encompass a wider range of users. Release 6 will add free trade zones and warehouses, and Release 8 will include exporters, for example.

There are two basic requirements for becoming a participant: being certified under the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program and Internet connectivity. Applications must be submitted by e-mail and the information required includes the importer name, unique Importer of Record number, a statement certifying C-TPAT participation, and a statement that certifies the applicant''s ability to connect to the Internet. The address to apply to is:

Enterprises also should be aware that security works both ways: while online ACE will bolster supply-chain security, it also represents a significant risk since the portal gives access to sensitive shipment data. Who should have access to the site and how users are authorized are crucially important. "You should decide that," said Dempsey. "Security is a big piece of this."