"We see it as an increasing market," said John W. Douglass, the president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association. "Many of the technologies that make you a successful aerospace contractor would also make you a successful homeland-security contractor."
Several of the team members started preparing for the project more than two years ago, when the DHS was considering a since-abandoned border initiative called America's Shield. Team representatives have spent months on the border, and several of the bidders have set up remote border-area test sites to evaluate their equipment.
Nearly 60 potential bidders expressed interest in the project before the DHS winnowed the field to the five rival teams. Universities in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are aligned with several of the teams, reflecting academia's growing expertise in homeland security and border demographics.
Bidders made oral presentations over the past two weeks and have until Monday to update their proposals. One major defense contractor, L-3 Communications, headquartered in New York, is effectively competing against itself, with units positioned on three teams.
While SBInet bristles with opportunity, the winning team will face immense obstacles in trying to create a leak-proof "virtual wall" traversing rugged desert terrain in the south and mountainous, wooded landscape in the north. The challenges probably will include property-rights disputes and environmental issues.
Sensors and cameras have been operating along the borders for years; the SBInet team will be charged with building an integrated and modernized system tying all the pieces together. In addition to technology, the industry team will provide contract personnel for non-law enforcement jobs and train government agents to adapt to the new system.
In a January briefing, Jackson urged industry officials to be innovative without straying "onto the wacky edge of creativity." Most proposals call for a network of thousands of sensors that would detect movement, sound and in some cases smell.
The sensor then would flash an alarm on a computerized map in a command-and-control center, where an operator would train a long-range mounted camera on the site to determine whether an animal or a human intruder tripped the alarm. If necessary, agents would be dispatched. Several, if not all, of the teams would augment the protection with unmanned surveillance aircraft and, in some cases, high-altitude surveillance balloons.
The project could unleash a construction boom along the Mexican and Canadian borders as the winning consortium erects buildings, roads and an as-yet-unspecified stretch of barriers and fences to complement the high-tech shield.
Accordingly, most of the teams bristle with engineering and architectural talent, such as HNTB and Fluor Corp., a 35,000-employee international construction company that moved its headquarters from California to Irving, Texas, this summer. Fluor is a member of Ericsson's team.
DHS officials expect the work to encompass thousands of suppliers and subcontractors. Lockheed Martin, for example, held community meetings in seven cities along both borders, meeting with more than 350 subcontractors. More than 650 companies have registered on its Web site.
For all the players, SBInet offers a chance for a giant leap into an already burgeoning government market. Since the DHS was created in 2003 from the consolidation of 22 agencies and departments, procurement spending at the department rose from $3.5 billion to $10 billion in 2005, according to the House Government Reform Committee.
Perot Systems of Plano, Texas, founded by Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot Sr., already has 700 employees working with the DHS under its four-year-old government services division; it would supply support personnel to command-and-control centers if its Boeing-led team wins the contract. Many other companies also have at least a toehold in DHS business.
The shield is a dominant component of the Secure Border Initiative to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, which Chertoff announced last November. More than 1.2 million illegal immigrants were arrested in 2005, nearly all on the southern border.