The dinner bell hasn't rung yet. But technology companies of every breed are scrambling for a place at the trough.A $9 billion homeland security IT feast is set for the coming fiscal year. And after lean times gnawing on scrawny private-sector contracts, these firms can't wait to get their hands on new government fat.Pre-meal preparations are in full swing this week at the new Washington Convention Center, where the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association has assembled 10,000 military techies and defense contractors for a three-day confab.The best way to shore up the United States' defenses, they've collectively decreed, is to boost communications, increase information gathering and heighten collaboration between military and civil authorities.And in the center's fluorescent-lit exhibit halls, they've laid out hundreds of handsomely priced tools for facilitating all that talk: secure cell phones, Humvee-mounted communications hubs, software for directing ambulances and fire trucks like so many Predator drones.Some of the executives here -- like the waxy, rumpled suits from Boeing and Lockheed Martin -- have long histories of handling the government's business and are looking to expand their ancient, lucrative ties.Others, like Paul Kirchoff, a tanned, crystal pendant-wearing vice president of Austin, Texas, software firm United Devices, are newcomers to the public sector.But this dot-com refugee knows money when he smells it. "There's a sense of urgency in the government space," Kirchoff said, slipping quickly into business jargon. "And an ability to monetarily support your business."Read more about the event in my latest Wired News story.THERE'S MORE: You'd think that a brand-spanking-new convention center would be a huge boost to downtown DC. But you'd be wrong. Defense contractors may be playing billion-dollar footsy over $2.25 bagels in the recently-completed center. But across the street, boarded-up storefronts and abandoned, graffiti-covered brownstones continue to crumble.

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