FAA launches comm upgrade

The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a program potentially worth billions of dollars to upgrade its entire air and ground system infrastructure to support data and voice communications.

The FAA last month released a request for information (RFI) for the development of its Next-Generation Air Ground Communications System (Nexcom) which will replace analog equipment with digital links to help meet the increasing nationwide demand for voice and data communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

The transition to digital links which is expected to begin in 2002 also is expected to reduce long-term maintenance costs of the FAA's aging infrastructure according to the RFI. The contract which has not been assigned an award date would call for the design of the advanced communications system and the provision of all hardware software and radio equipment for the new system. The contractor also would be required to provide maintenance of the existing systems as well as the upgraded system. The increase in air traffic demands more efficient use of the available FAA air traffic control frequency spectrum. The FAA is examining methods of using digital data communications to replace routine and often-redundant voice communications which will free up spectrum space for pilots to relay and receive information from air traffic controllers said Steven Zaidman the FAA's director of systems architecture and investment analysis.

"There are more and more pressures - in terms of traffic growth and new facilities - that are beyond radios " Zaidman said. Several of the nation's busiest airports such as Chicago and Los Angeles have experienced difficulty in handling the growing voice communications he said.

This new data communications system could be used for issuing takeoff clearances to pilots from air traffic controllers or for the transfer of communications from air traffic controllers in one geographic area to another to track an aircraft's route he said. Future developments in this technology could possibly provide real-time weather graphics in the cockpit of an aircraft.

With the RFI the FAA is seeking industry input to identify viable technology alternatives that could be used for the upgrade to evaluate the ease of moving to a new system and to gauge associated costs and risks for the transition. The FAA plans to begin making initial investment decisions - such as narrowing the field of possible replacement technologies - in the spring Zaidman said.

According to the RFI officials also are weighing the costs and benefits of operating the system as a commercial entity in lieu of a traditional government-operated and maintained system.

The Nexcom contracting officer has said the program has the potential to be awarded for "billions of dollars " according to Federal Sources Inc. a McLean Va.-based concern that follows the federal information technology market. Zaidman said it was too early to quantify the cost of the program. However he categorized it as a "very large program" that would involve replacing 40 000 radios and the avionics in the cockpits of all aircraft.

Ray Hilton director of air traffic management at the Air Transportation Association said a data communications network that has been used by the airline industry and the FAA for decades to provide rudimentary information such as clearance to leave the gate and airport weather updates has dramatically increased efficiency. Data communications also can be used to overcome some of the language problems associated with international travel he said.

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