IG tells FAA to rethink telecom program

Agency told to develop a new schedule and consider terminating the FTI program

An inspector general has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to reconsider continuing a telecommunications project that is behind schedule and not living up to expectations. Although the project has faltered, it is unclear why, or how other agencies could avoid making the same mistakes.

An IG report released last week recommends that the FAA’s program office develop a new schedule and decide whether to alter or terminate the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program.

FTI’s purpose is to replace existing systems that let air traffic controllers communicate with pilots. It is supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one operated by Harris. The FAA had planned to complete the consolidation by December 2007.

But the program, which the IG has designated as high risk, will likely miss its deadline and fail to deliver the anticipated cost savings, the audit states. FTI is more likely to be completed by November 2009, according to the report, which also states that a projected $102 million in cost savings for fiscal 2006 will not materialize unless FAA managers accelerate the transition to the new system almost tenfold.

Theodore Alves, the Transportation Department’s principal assistant IG for auditing and evaluation, issued the final audit report after a lengthy investigation. The FAA awarded a performance-based contract for the project to Harris in July 2002. The agency is still paying MCI, now known as Verizon Business, to use an older system while Harris builds and installs the new one.

Each year of delay beyond the December 2007 target could increase the agency’s telecom costs by $100 million a year as it pays for the new network and for maintaining the old one, Alves’ report states, citing a Mitre analysis.

Harris officials said that the company will complete its portion of the project on time.

The FAA saves money only when the agency disconnects its older circuits, which it has been slow to do, the IG report notes.

The audit does not focus on safety concerns or complaints about the FTI architecture. However, the report does discuss one particular episode. Last fall, a radar outage at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago occurred during a switchover to FTI.

The loss of radar operations happened when Harris subcontractors attempted to shift phone circuits carrying radar data to FTI circuits. No backup system was available because the FAA had eliminated that requirement to speed FTI site acceptance, officials at Professional Airways Systems Specialists, an FAA employee union, said at the time.

To avoid a similar episode, the FAA must validate requirements with regional officials before transitioning services from older networks to FTI, according to the new IG report.

Government sources said the FAA must stop certain activation activities until the program office and regional sites validate the requirements. However, Harris can proceed to deliver equipment as previously planned.

Last week, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said the program office does not have to halt transitioning to FTI services. “The FAA has an extensive pipeline of validated service requirements to put into the provisioning process, and so there is no need to stop the transition to perform service validation,” she said.

Office of IG officials have not publicly announced whether they will conduct a follow-up audit of FTI.

To account for delays so far, the FAA will have to exercise a one-year option in its existing contract with Verizon Business and may need to retain Verizon’s services longer than that extra year.

In response to a draft of the report, FAA officials stated that they intend to take a number of program management actions to gain control over the FTI transition. Overall, FAA agreed or partially agreed with all of the IG’s recommendations.

Left unanswered in the IG report is the question of how the program went awry. “They are trying to fix the problem with these recommendations, but they are not doing a good job of explaining the problem,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “If this can happen for FAA, with all of their smarts and all of their engineering talent and all of their oversight, it seems like this can happen to anyone.”

Verizon says it stands ready to continue telecom servicesThe Federal Aviation Administration plans to negotiate with Verizon Business before March 2007 to extend its existing contract through March 2008. That extension is necessary to maintain services while the delayed FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure project continues. The extension will include options for periods beyond that.

Jerry Edgerton, president of Verizon Federal, said he would consider an extension of the contract. “Our intent is to provide the best service possible under the current FTI schedule or any modified approach,” he said. “The network far exceeds the contractual expectations that we were asked to conform to. The economic validation of their current approach appears to be in question. I’m assuming that the FAA will look seriously at what’s been raised.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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