GTE wins $30M weather contract

The National Weather Service recently awarded GTE Information Systems LLC a contract potentially worth $29.4 million to build a more reliable and less expensive satellite-based system to disseminate weather information.

GTE will beef up the existing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Wire Service (NWWS), which disseminates weather warnings, watches, forecasts and other information to users such as TV and radio stations and emergency managers. Among other services, the NWWS produces the familiar ticker crawling across the bottom of a TV screen warning of severe weather in the area.

The system relies on a very small-aperture terminal satellite network to collect weather data from local NWS offices and disseminate the data to users. However, the system is based on the somewhat outdated X.25 transmission technology and is costly for many users to access because they need a satellite dish to receive the data.

GTE, the incumbent NWWS contractor, will replace the existing 11-year-old system with a more reliable, less expensive and more accessible service. For the first time, users will be able to access NWWS weather data directly from the Internet and a central server located at NWS.

"The old system was probably not for the amateur weather person," said Jim Cooper, director of business development at GTE. "With the new version, the end user will be served in several different options. One is Internet broadcast."

The new system will be based on TCP/IP standards and will offer much higher bandwidth and more network intelligence, Cooper said. For example, the current broadcast to users is 7.2 kilobits/sec. That will grow to 64 kilobits/sec. "That provides a lot more room for new graphics and other Weather Wire products," he said.

Consultant Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates, said almost all carriers are migrating their X.25 traffic to newer protocols such as TCP/IP. This makes sense because "so much of what goes on is Internet-based," he said.

"The other advantage is the software on the users' side," Suss said. "So many of the browsers that are commercially accepted are almost ubiquitous on users' systems, whereas software for X.25 tends to be more unique and difficult to find."

The NWWS will be highly reliable, Cooper said. GTE will deliver 98 percent of priority messages, such as severe weather warnings, within 10 seconds and deliver 99.8 percent of priority messages within 30 seconds.

Another important improvement will be redundancy built into the system, said Doug Walls, program manager for satellite systems at NWS. For example, instead of having a single master ground station that receives weather data collected from local offices and national centers and retransmits it, there will be two stations. In addition, each local office will have a dial-in backup capability in case satellite communications go down.

These upgrades will enable the NWWS to better perform its role as the first line of defense to protect people against severe weather, Walls said. "It's the fastest way to get this information on warnings and watches out to the public," he said. "If we can give people the edge to get to the basement before a tornado hits, then we've done our job."

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