TUCSON, Arizona -- The U.S. government has begun building more "virtual" fencing along the border with Mexico at a cost of $100 million after overcoming some of the technological glitches of an ill-starred prototype, officials said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said work had begun on the first of two new stretches of the fencing covering a total of 53 miles along the Arizona border, combining tower-mounted radars, cameras and other sensors to spot for smugglers crossing from Mexico.
The program follows a much-criticized prototype built by Boeing Co that went live along a 28 mile stretch of the border in 2007. That drew fire from Congress for a slew of problems including radar and communications faults.
"The prototype didn't work, but the system now does work ... It actually got fixed," Mark Borkowski, executive director of the agency's Secure Border Initiative, told a news conference in Tucson.
Work began this month on a new stretch of fencing covering 23 miles of the border, near Sasabe, southwest of Tucson. It comprises 17 sensor and communication towers and 200 unattended ground sensors and is expected to become operational this year.
Additional work to build 12 communication and sensor towers along a second, 30-mile stretch of border near the desert town of Ajo, will begin in coming months. That is expected to be completed next year and turned over to the Border Patrol, Borkowski said.
Both stretches are to be built by Boeing.
Each year, Mexican smugglers haul thousands of tons of illegal drugs and guide hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants across the U.S. border, many through the heavily trafficked desert corridor south of Tucson.
The hi-tech border fencing system is designed to use radar, day and night vision cameras and sensors to detect smugglers. It will allow system operators to direct Border Patrol agents in the field to make arrests.
A Government Accountability Office report found that the earlier prototype virtual fence, dubbed "Project 28," had been developed without sufficient consultation with the Border Patrol. It had communications and software glitches and fuzzy video images among other problems.
Borkowski said testing in the interim had drawn on Border Patrol input. Elements of the radar and camera systems had been replaced and changes made to the "communications backbone" as well as technology giving agents a common operating picture.
If the fence is accepted by the Border Patrol, Borkowski said it could be extended across the southwest border -- with the exception of the Border Patrol's Marfa sector -- by 2014 at an estimated cost of $6.7 billion.
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