FAA picks ITT for digital radio deal

The Federal Aviation Administration has awarded ITT Industries Inc. a contract worth up to $580 million to provide multimode digital radios to air traffic controllers — the first step in a long-term effort to upgrade controller/pilot communications.

The initial contract, worth $20.5 million, is the first under the FAA's Next Generation Air/Ground Communications (NexCom) program to replace aging analog radios with digital ones.

John Kirkwood, ITT Industries spokesman, said the new radios would provide four channels for each frequency, compared with one channel for each frequency on analog radios. That will free space on an increasingly crowded and "noisy" radio spectrum, he said.

With the new radios, "the controllers and the pilots are assured they're going to get locked on to secure transmissions," Kirkwood said.

Although NexCom addresses a number of needs — such as replacing decades-old systems and enhancing the security of transmissions — the spectrum issue is its primary driver, said Jim Eck, leader of the FAA's air/ground voice communications product team. The agency expects a spectrum crunch by the end of the decade.

"We have to make sure we mitigate this spectrum depletion problem," he said. "That is the No. 1 concern."

With about 50,000 transmitter and receiving stations needing new equipment, the NexCom program is "a massive undertaking," said Jim Williams, air/ground communications integrated product team leader. The agency anticipates buying up to 35,000 of the new radios, he said. The FAA will conduct a separate acquisition to replace radio systems used by the military.

Other steps in the NexCom program include special rulemaking scheduled for 2004 and installing equipment in aircraft — a job that would be airlines' responsibility — to work with the new radios. By 2009, all aircraft flying above 18,000 feet in en route airspace will use the new system, Eck said.

ITT Industries is partnering with Park Air Systems, a British subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp.; Federal Data Corp.; and Operational Technologies Services Inc.

The new radio will be installed at 1,500 remote air-to-ground communications and backup emergency communications facilities serving 21 Air Route Traffic Control centers.

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