FAA telecom effort lifts off

Project is key to handling huge growth in air traffic

More is riding on the Federal Aviation Administration’s nearly $2 billion effort to upgrade its telecommunications network than just helping the agency save money and consolidate its existing communications systems.

If the FAA Telecommunications Initiative doesn’t get off the ground, officials admit, the agency’s Next-Generation Air Transportation System—FAA’s plan to handle an expected 30 percent increase in air traffic over the next decade—will have a tough time succeeding on its own.

Although some early turbulence threw FTI slightly off course and behind schedule, FAA officials still expect the program not only to revolutionize how the agency communicates among its 4,000 air traffic facilities, but also to save it and the country a considerable amount of money.

It also will pave the way for NGATS, which will rely on strong communication between air traffic control workers and the aviation industry.

“FTI is a far more flexible infrastructure and will make possible a lot of the future initiatives FAA is planning,” said Stephen Dash, manager of FAA’s Air Traffic Control Communication Services division. “There is no way we could do [NGATS] under the old system.”

FAA launched FTI in 2002 when it awarded a five-year, $1.7 billion contract to Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla. FAA officials estimated that, when fully implemented, FTI could save the government roughly $700 million over the next 11 years.

The project is ambitious—it seeks to replace the six or seven legacy telecommunications systems used by FAA air traffic control locations across the country. The new network will provide voice, data and video services, and replace FAA-owned multiplexing and switching networks as well as other leased telecom services.

Work started immediately, and a few sites began going live in early 2004 [GCN.com, Quickfind 715]. Under the initial plans, Harris and FAA were to complete the project by December 2007.

But Dash said that after the first rollout, progress stalled in late 2004 and early 2005, as officials went through a learning curve of managing such a massive initiative.

“We started slower than we thought,” Dash said. “This is a pretty massive undertaking, and the assumption that we’d have a fast acceleration wasn’t achieved.”

Indeed, Transportation’s inspector general in May 2006 reported that management issues were “eroding” the promised savings from FTI. In particular, the IG report claimed that the contract began falling behind schedule in early 2005 because FAA’s Joint Resources Council, the agency’s procurement decision-maker, did not and has not set firm deadlines and requirements for the FTI program office.

Dash does not dispute these findings but said that while the IG was performing its investigations, FAA and Harris officials began exercising better control of the project and started accelerating progress.

“There was a fair amount of learning; we had to go through that,” he said. “It took us a while.”

The biggest problem, he said, was that the initial December 2007 date was “too ambitious.”

That date needed to be pushed back “to ensure we would have success,” he said. Now FAA expects to complete the project by December 2008.

FAA and Harris also improved their use of earned-value management, a tool that lets project managers track money spent on a project almost in real time, and measures that expense against milestones and deadlines.

“FAA and Harris embraced the [IG] recommendations and implemented many of them to ensure they bring in the cost savings” anticipated under FTI, said Jeremy Wensinger, group president of Harris’ Integrated Systems and Services division. The recommendations “were welcomed and led to FAA and Harris executing a better program.”

By extending the end date, Dash admitted, the expected savings will shrink by about $80 million. But considering the overall benefits—FAA officials still anticipate upward of $600 million in savings—the delay is a small sacrifice.

“We’re still projecting a huge net savings” because of the program, he said.

At this point, Wensinger and Dash said, the project is about half completed. Harris installed new services at about 2,000 locations, and most of the progress happened during fiscal 2006, Dash said.

Since this summer, FAA has transferred all operational monitoring and management of FTI’s mission support network—which handles administrative functions like e-mail and payroll—to Harris’ Network Operations Control Center in Melbourne.

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