Budget Cuts Could Ax Census Handheld Plan

House, Senate reduce funding request, raising questions about $600M project

The future of a planned $600 million handheld deployment by the U.S. Census Bureau is in question as a result of the fiscal 2007 funding bills approved by the House and Senate, which both reduced the White House's requested amount for census operations.

Although a conference committee won't determine the final budget numbers until later this year, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) plans to hold a special hearing on Thursday to discuss the census budget. Wolf chairs a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau.

One of the topics to be considered at the hearing is whether the proposed funding bills would threaten the planned rollout of 500,000 wireless handheld devices for census takers to use during the 2010 national census, an aide to Wolf said last week.

Wolf said the reduced funding approved by the House and Senate "would be devastating" to the Census Bureau, although he didn't specify that the cuts would automatically kill the handheld project.

Gauging the Impact

Census Bureau officials wouldn't comment about the proposed reductions or the future of the handheld project, saying only that they are monitoring the ongoing budget process. The handheld rollout plans remain intact for now, a bureau spokesman said.

The spokesman said that the bureau sent an impact statement about the proposed budget cuts to House members in June. But he wouldn't disclose any of the impact statement's contents because it hasn't been released publicly.

The White House initially proposed funding of $878 million for Census Bureau operations in fiscal 2007, which starts Oct. 1. The House last month approved a budget proposal that would give the bureau $824 million, while the Senate last week set its funding level at $828 million.

The Census Bureau in April awarded a five-year contract for the handheld rollout to a team of vendors led by Harris Corp. The pocket-size devices are slated to run Windows Mobile 5.0 and be made by a manufacturer in Taiwan. Census officials have said that the use of handhelds should save "millions of dollars" by reducing the time it takes to gather data, improving its accuracy and minimizing the need to process paper census forms.

But the costs of the handheld program and the census process as a whole have been called into question by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), chairman of a subcommittee on federal financial management. He has urged the bureau to conduct the census online, following the practice of Canada and several other countries. Coburn is concerned about projections that the 2010 census will cost more than $11 billion, almost twice the cost of the 2000 census, an aide said last week.

Data Collectors
Key details of the U.S. Census Bureau's planned Field Data Collection Automation Project:
 The handhelds will be consumer-grade devices that have been customized and made semirugged.

  The devices will include a cellular data radio for sending encrypted information over a dedicated network.

  A traditional phone-line connection port will be provided for backup purposes.

  Oracle software and Dell PCs and servers will be installed at Census Bureau offices to support the handhelds.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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