FAA clears rollout of net backbone

With the all-go sign given for a new communications backbone, the Federal Aviation Administration has taken the first step toward saving roughly $700 million on its telecommunications costs over the next 15 years.

'It costs a lot to run a lot of networks,' and the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure will replace five disparate networks, FAA telecom manager Steve Dash said.

FAA has OK'd deployment of the new FTI backbone at 27 facilities by September.

'It's the first phase,' Dash said. 'The backbone will tie together the major operational facilities.'
A decision to proceed with a second rollout to the remaining 5,000 FAA locations could come in July, Dash said.

'We're way past happy,' said Don Nickens, program director for prime contractor Harris Corp. 'This is a major milestone for us.'

FAA began studying consolidation of its communications infrastructure in 1999 and concluded it would be more cost-efficient to consolidate under a single contract.

A contract to build and manage the new WAN went to Harris in July 2002. The prime oversees a dozen telecom and networking vendors, including Sprint Corp. and Raytheon Co. as well as the regional Bell operating companies that will supply last-mile connections to FAA facilities.

FTI will consolidate the Leased Interfacility National Airspace Communications System, Bandwidth Manager, Data Multiplexing Network, Agency Data Telecommunications Network 2000 and NAS Aviation Data Interchange Network.

The initial five years of the FTI contract are worth $1.7 billion. The contract could extend up to 15 years for a potential value of $3.5 billion to Harris and its subcontractors. FTI's cost includes a capital investment of about $300 million.

Backbone testing began last fall at en route traffic control centers in Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Worth, Texas. Those sites are tied to Harris' network operations center in Melbourne, Fla., and will become fully operational next month.

FTI will integrate off-the-shelf technology and services for voice, video and data. The big hurdle is the scope. Harris's headache in bringing the Kansas City and Fort Worth sites online was 'making sure everything came together at the same time,' Nickens said.

That included quality-of-service verification, technical certification at FAA's test bed in New Jersey and completion of Harris' network operations center.

Go ahead

'We had the typical start-up integration problems,' such as making sure cable and hardware were delivered on time, Nickens said. 'Logistics will kill you every time.'

The tests were successful enough to warrant a go-ahead for the backbone to be deployed at 27 sites. When approved, the second phase would extend the network to about 600 sites, including 349 significant air traffic control facilities and thousands of unstaffed remote sites, such as radar locations.

FTI eventually will provide connectivity for all FAA ground facilities but will not include uplinks for aircraft communications.

Dash said the traffic types and transfer methods are similar to current traffic. Phase 2 sites will require additional interface testing, he said.

Last-mile connections in such a widely distributed network require many different phone carriers.
'That is a significant challenge for many programs like this,' Nickens said. 'The major telco providers are working hand-in-hand with us, and so far that has gone pretty well.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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