Tech giant comes knocking at seaports

Tech giant comes knocking at seaports

The prospect of billions of dollars being spent to make U.S. seaports secure from terrorism is attracting the attention of some of the biggest U.S. technology companies. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are two firms making their presence felt in the port-security arena, while another is Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose company that is the world's largest supplier of data networking equipment.

With installations at a number of U.S. seaports, Cisco is building at these ports what it dubs "Seaport of the Future." It is a telecommunications network that will allow the port to manage images and data necessary for effective access control and other security requirements.

Cisco says its system can replace what are usually multiple, overlapping telecom systems currently in place at most seaports. "Right now port technology networks are spaghetti. They're inefficient and have a lot of duplication, and have inherent vulnerabilities," said Michael O'Hara Garcia, Cisco's business development manager for seaport operations.

It's not a stretch to see the attraction. Homeland security is a national priority and an expensive one. The Coast Guard estimates private industry will need to spend $7 billion over 10 years to meet new seaport-security rules.

Cisco is best known for routers and other computer hardware, but the technology it is bringing to bear on seaports comes out of its lesser-known specialty in military and police technology. The company's interest in seaports evolved over the past year, as its managers realized that new border-security imperatives would require ports to take a comprehensive approach to security. The interest peaked with the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 and the IMO Security Standards of 2004, which focused the technology provider on port needs.

Cisco is not focusing on container-yard technology or business software. Rather, its "Seaport of the Future" would house a storage area for data, content distribution, television and video surveillance as well as providing a secure Intranet and Internet perimeter. For example, if there's something suspicious in a container terminal, a port worker equipped with a shoulder-mounted camera could feed live images of the container to a security expert sitting in an office miles away. The expert would make a safety call, while all relevant data about the container would be easily accessible.

"Content distribution moves the data closer to the user," Garcia said. The idea is that the computer network doesn't store everything in one central site, but instead disperses it onto different computers that can respond more rapidly to an information request. The technology will give a port the ability to combine video surveillance with access controls. These controls need real-time information to be effective, something that conventional closed-circuit surveillance television can't do.

Content distribution is critical for organizations seeking tighter access control. The ability to grant or deny a particular individual access to a facility has become a central issue of port security. Images from conventional surveillance television can't be easily distributed through a company's information system. By connecting the surveillance images with the Internet, a security system could snap a photograph of a culprit and immediately send it to the FBI for identification.

Among the ports where the technology is being installed is the Port of Charleston. "We did a complete turnaround," said Howard Shuman, Cisco's project director for Charleston project. The technology provider replaced the port's wide and local area networks and voice systems and installed a new phone system at port facilities. Port officials expect the project to save them $486,000 over the next five years, said Todd Davis, the network manager of information technology for the South Carolina State Ports Authority.

"We had to put in a more robust infrastructure to support the surveillance that we'll have to do down the pike," Davis said.

The project began when he realized the port was paying too much for voicemail. "We needed to unify everything. We were such a hodgepodge of stuff because of our terminals there was no way BellSouth (the telecommunications provider) could tie all these individual systems together."

Cisco's Garcia insists such a complex system isn't out of reach for a port, regardless of size or resources. "Ports can use their security grants to pay for these new systems, but they can also use their network for multiple business uses," he said. "It's more a question of people learning about the technology and what it can do for them."