FAA launches $2.75 billion telecom system

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to launch an estimated $2.75 billion program that will revamp the agency's telecommunications infrastructure and prepare it for the next century.

The FAA Integrated Communications Systems for the 21st century (FICS-21) program, which was detailed last week, is the largest single FAA telecommunications program ever. It will provide ground-to-ground transmission, switching and network management control for voice, data and video communications, and it will replace at least 11 major programs, including both FAA-owned and leased networks, with an integrated system.

According to Jeff Yarnell, the FAA program manager for FICS-21, many FAA telecommunications contracts will expire around 2000. "This is a good opportunity to rebuild the entire telecommunications infrastructure," he said. "We now have a layered system; we want an integrated system."

Much of the technology is already 10 years old and needs to be replaced, Yarnell added.

FICS-21 will provide updated telecommunications equipment and services to all FAA sites, including air traffic control (ATC) centers, FAA regional offices and remote sites served via satellite communication links under the current FAA Telecommunications Satellite System (FAATSAT).

FICS-21 will replace leased networks, including FAATSAT; the Leased Interfacility NAS Communications System, which serves ATC facilities; and the Agency Data Telecommunications Network 2000, which is the FAA's administrative telecommunications network. In addition, the program will replace FAA-owned networks, including the Radio Communications Link network, which handles voice, data and broadband radar data traffic.

Yarnell said one of the goals of FICS-21 is to create the first integrated administrative and operational network in the FAA while significantly reducing the cost of providing telecom services to its users by taking advantage of the economies of scale the contract will offer. The agency wants to acquire FICS-21 in four years, which Yarnell described as "record time."

Looking at the big picture makes sense, although there are still some risks involved with a single integrated solution, said Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates.

"I think that it makes sense as an approach, but it also creates the potential for risks," Suss said. "On the plus side, when you integrate [contracts] under one umbrella, there is less overlap, greater interoperability and increased cost effectiveness. On the other hand, if you break it up, you can give each smaller part the attention it needs. One large solution could make it difficult to acquire [products and services] from a specific company with expertise in certain areas."

The FAA hopes to get as much vendor feedback as possible as it irons out the best acquisition strategy. It has not decided whether to outsource the entire contract, award a single contract or multiple contracts, award regional contracts or maintain a mix of leased and owned networks. Transition from one network to another also needs to be addressed, Yarnell said.

Although the FAA will need to decide on an acquisition strategy before vendor teaming arrangements can be set, vendors already have expressed interest in the program.

"We look at it as a big opportunity to partner with the FAA," said Joe Fields, director of business development at Computer Sciences Corp. "It's a large opportunity for an integrator/carrier to really show their strengths and skills. Yes, we're looking at it."

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