Senators quiz IGs on NextGen, FirstNet

Senators on the Commerce Committee are looking to agency watchdogs for news and oversight of large IT infrastructure projects like FAA's NextGen and the Commerce Department's FirstNet.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
 

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz quizzed agency oversight officials on the status of the FAA's NextGen air traffic control system.

Senators on the Commerce Committee are looking to agency watchdogs for news and oversight of large IT infrastructure projects like Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen and the Commerce Department's FirstNet.

The Next Generation air traffic control system has an undetermined cost and schedule for completion. FirstNet, a planned nationwide broadband public safety communications network, will award its pricey contract this year.

Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel told the Senate Commerce Committee that NextGen, FAA's massive modernization effort to replace outdated air traffic equipment, "has become a perennial concern."

Scovel said NextGen "has been a murky process from the get-go" and has "become more of an infrastructure replacement program" than the transformational effort it was originally billed as.

"Many requirements remain undefined, and FAA has yet to fully quantify how these programs will achieve expected benefits for the aviation industry," Scovel said, adding that the project has cost $5.7 billion to date.

Scovel estimated that a reasonable expectation for NextGen's completion would be "between 2025 and 2030 perhaps." The "worst case scenario" cost, which would be split between industry and FAA, could approach $100 billion, far exceeding FAA estimates of $20 billion for the agency plus $15 billion from industry.

He said, however, that he does not believe the project "is a matter necessarily or inherently beyond [FAA's] capability," but made clear that FAA needs to clarify the priorities of the project for its success.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Scovel about the cyber vulnerabilities facing the FAA's current air traffic control system.

Scovel said that Transportation, as a whole, is lagging in cybersecurity and that his "techies" concluded that they could have breached FAA's air traffic control system "had they wanted to."

On FirstNet, Department of Commerce IG Peggy Gustafson told the committee that "significant spending is going to begin this year in earnest" with the contract award for the complex network, which will total "tens of billions of dollars" in its lifetime.

Future oversight work "will depend on FirstNet's post-award activities," namely management of state network plans, coverage issues and ensuring the requirements in the contract are adhered to, she said.

Scovel and Gustafson also brought up other major tech challenges faced by their respective agencies.

Specifically, Scovel said increased commercial drone use and the expanding capabilities of those unnamed aircraft systems, such as package delivery and precision agriculture, "underscore the need for further regulatory efforts" to ensure airspace safety.

Gustafson said that continued delays in upgrades to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's aging satellite systems, which represent one of Commerce's largest investments, risk gaps in valuable data collection.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the witness panel about the Trump transition team's pre-inauguration threats to dismiss agency IGs from their posts.

Scovel and Department of Homeland Security IG John Roth told the committee that the transition team heads told them directly their job statuses were temporary, but later assured them the administration would not replace them. Neither IG said he had received this assurance in writing.

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