FAA faces years of transition to telecom backbone

The aviation industry is in the worst financial condition since World War II, yet carriers and the nation's air traffic system must cope with an expected doubling in flight volume over the next 10 years, officials said at a recent meeting of the Air Traffic Controllers Association in Washington.

They'll need to streamline everything from aircraft spacing to runway design. Underlying most of the proposed improvements is the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to modernize its voice communications.

FAA in July awarded the five-year FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure contract, worth an initial $1.7 billion, to Harris Corp. and a dozen telecom and networking vendors. They plan to migrate five different FAA networks into one backbone by late 2007. The contract could be extended to 15 years for a potential value of $3.5 billion.

Current work represents the first two task orders of the indefinite-quantity contract.

'We are going to swallow this monster one bite at a time,' said Y. Joe Sleiman, business development director for Harris' government communications systems division in Melbourne, Fla.
Sprint Corp. will supply the FTI backbone with final connectivity through local and regional telecom operators. The WAN will encompass 35,000 circuits for voice, radar and other data links to 5,000 locations at FAA headquarters, nine regional FAA offices, 21 air traffic control centers, 170 large air terminals, 350 other air terminals and 61 automated flight service stations.

'Technically, it isn't challenging at all,' Sleiman said. 'What's challenging is the sheer magnitude, the number of connections and the customer-premises equipment that's got to go in.'

All in one

Initial networks to be integrated are the Leased Interfacility National Air Space System, Bandwidth Manager, Data Multiplexing Network, Agency Data Telecommunications Network 2000 and NAS Aviation Data Interchange Network.

Some of the networks, such as NADIN, an old X.25 packet-switched network, will move to newer frame relay technology, Sprint spokesman John Polivka said.

WorldCom Inc. holds a five-year bridge contract for much of the communications backbone being replaced. The cutover to Sprint will happen over the remaining four years of that contract.

FTI now is in the blueprint stages. Plans are to be finished by June, with installation at initial sites by October of next year. By mid-2004 the transition backbone must be ready for the 21 control centers, four major support facilities and two NADIN network nodes. Full transition to FTI is supposed to happen by September 2007.

In addition to the amount of integration required to bring FAA communications under a single infrastructure, the critical nature of the data makes reliability essential.

'It's not your typical telecom job,' said Sleighton F. Meyer, Harris' senior communications manager. 'There cannot be any downtime during the transition.'

Other FTI contractors include Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., General Dynamics Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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