CBP and Smart Containers: What Does It Know?

Dr. Jim Giermanski, chairman of Powers Global Holdings, gives us a break down of both RFID and Satellite Communications, two container security device technologies.

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Perhaps the best way to summarize its benefits is in relationship to the weaknesses of RFID smart containers. First, there is no need to acquire infrastructure for antennas or transceivers. Second, there is no need to install that infrastructure and equipment at these points around the world. Third, since there are no land-locked, global chokepoints, there is no need for their maintenance. Fourth, there is no concern for a common global frequency for transmissions. A single satellite provider can accommodate all transmissions in the licensed areas worldwide. Fifth, there is no need to have common global protocols. Sixth, all transmissions are in real time or close to real time and are not historical and delayed as with RFID. In other words, one knows about an unauthorized access to the container at the time it happens and before it arrives at the port of departure. Seventh, and probably most significant, it does not serve as a potential IED since it is not equivalent to random RF emissions. Instead, it is a programmed transmission within an established system for which there is a method of defeating its use as an IED transmission.

2. Satellite Weaknesses

There are very few, if any weaknesses especially compared to RFID. Perhaps one most commonly pointed out is that to transmit globally, one needs a license from the countries over which the satellite transmits. This has not been shown to be a significant weakness. For instance Iridium can just about transmit in over every international trade lane. Another weakness is its inability to transmit from dead spots like below deck in the vessel. The fact is, it can if the carrier cooperates and joins with the shipper in providing the technology to do so. It is a matter of cost, not capability.

The Mystery

There cannot be any serious comparison between RFID container applications and container Satellite tracking and communications applications. In every way satellite is superior. Yet government agencies like DHS and DOD continue to use and/or approve RFID for container control in a global supply chain, knowing that it can even serve as an IED. They do so at a time when the other trading nations of the world are developing satellite systems for container security. Just recently China began movement to test container satellite security systems, and it is rumored that China may even ban RFID for container security at its ports. The EU has instituted a special program called the Seventh Framework Program, a major component of which is to test and evaluate satellite container security systems.

Yet, in January 2009, CBP on behalf of the OFO-INDUSTRY PARTNERSHIP will conduct their field test of only a single source provider (GE) of radio frequency CSDs with shipping containers crossing the U.S. Mexican border. It does this while knowing the failure of RFID usage in the North American Trade Prototype tests done in the mid 1990s. It has excluded other technology and is testing a sole-source RFID system only, even though a firm employing a container satellite system has offered to participate in the pilot at only the cost of some travel and the cost of the container satellite units needed for and utilized in the field test. The satellite security firm would provide volunteer C-TPAT certified Mexican shippers and carriers without cost to the pilot or CBP. Yet, there has been no response by CBP to the offering of a head-to-head comparison of RFID and Satellite, this in the face of Mexicos own interests in seeing a satellite container security system, and at the official request in writing of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to modify the pilot by accommodating the request of the satellite security system firm.

Does CBP really not want to know what other systems can do? Is its choice of a single-source product political? If not political, did CBP not know of the differences between RFID and Satellite? Does not CBP know of the movements in the EU, and China in recognizing the obvious superiority of satellite monitoring and control? Certainly, CBP knows of GMs Onstar capabilities with automobiles. Or can it not relate the concept of Onstar and container security? It is a mystery to many in and out of Congress why CBP does what it does, or fails to do what it should in the area of container security. It is clearly behind the rest of the trading world in this regard. There is certainly a challenge for the new Administration to improve CBPs level of awareness in this area.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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