Bidders Flock to FAA Telecom Contract

Bidders Flock to FAA Telecom Contract

By Nick Wakeman Staff Writer

Systems integrators and leading telecom providers are preparing to square off over a $1.9 billion Federal Aviation Administration contract to build an integrated telecommunications system.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure will roll together several existing communications systems in an effort to save money and become more efficient, said David Joyce, program manager for the contract.

The FAA, which manages the nation's aviation system, uses ground-based lines, satellite communications, wireless and radio to connect more than 5,000 air traffic control facilities. The systems allow voice communications among pilots and air traffic controllers and the transfer of data, such as flight plans, radar images and weather reports.

Because the system is critical to the agency's ability to operate the burgeoning air traffic control system and national commerce, the FTI contract will bestow instant prestige on the winner, industry officials said.

The FAA expects to release a draft screening information request, the agency's version of a draft request for proposals, in January, Joyce said. A tentative schedule for the FAA Telecom- munications Infrastructure contract has the agency beginning a down selection process in March 2000, with a final screening information request coming out in July.

An award should be made after Oct. 1 for the contract, which is expected to last 10 years.

AT&T Corp. of New York, Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and MCI WorldCom Inc. of Clinton, Miss., all plan to bid as prime contractors. A fifth company, Qwest Communications International Inc. of Denver, has not decided whether it will bid as a prime or join a team, said James Payne, senior vice president of the government systems division.

"The competition is formidable," said Roland Fritz, director of Transportation Department and FAA programs for MCI WorldCom. MCI WorldCom holds the incumbent contract for the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System, known as LINCS, which accounts for about 60 percent of the FTI system.

"We have built a business around supplying mission-critical services to FAA, so [FTI] is vitally important to us," he said. MCI WorldCom won the $1 billion, 10-year LINCS contract in 1992.

So far, Harris is the only company to release the names of its teammates. Bidding with Harris are Bell Atlantic Corp. of New York, BellSouth Corp. of Atlanta, GTE Corp. of Irving, Texas, Raytheon Corp. of Lexington, Mass., SBC Communications Inc. of San Antonio, Sprint Corp. of Westwood, Kan., and US West Inc. of Denver.

Officials with Lockheed Martin and MCI WorldCom said they are still negotiating with potential teammates and should announce their teams in the coming weeks. AT&T officials declined to comment.

Industry and FAA officials said the major challenge in the FTI project is not the technology itself but integrating the highly complex communications systems, transitioning to the new system and managing that system. Keeping pace with future technological change also is a key component.

"The FAA is trying to combine five different programs into a single, integrated network," said Robert Coulson, business development manager for Harris Government Communication Systems Division. He is the FTI pursuit manager for Harris.

"What they are really trying to do is take something that is very complex to manage now and make it simpler," he said.

"The existing cobweb of systems has grown up over the last 20 years," said Jack Clemons, senior vice president of engineering, technology and operations for Lockheed Martin's Air Traffic Management division. As the new system is built and deployed, there can be "no down time, so the transition is going to be tricky," he said.

The FAA's networks have to be highly reliable because problems can have disastrous results. "We think of them as extraordinary networks, and there are only a few players that have the credentials to be seriously considered for this work," Fritz said.

Payne said: "This is one of those contracts where the winner will be vetted as a carrier of choice, because this is the network that can never go down."

To ensure the winning contractor performs to a high standard, the FAA is considering the use of service-level agreements in the contract, Joyce said. With a service-level agreement, the agency pays the contractor for meeting a certain performance goal, such as network availability.

"We are asking industry what they think of service-level agreements," Joyce said. "We are open to [service-level agreements] if they are to our benefit."

The FAA has looked at NASA's Consolidated Space Operations Contract, which uses service-level agreements extensively, Joyce said. Lockheed Martin won the CSOC contract, worth $3.4 billion over 10 years, in September 1998.

NASA officials have praised the use of service-level agreements in both the CSOC contract and the Space Flight Operations Contract, a $7 billion contract won by the United Space Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing Co. joint venture. Service-level agreements helped NASA save $165 million over the $400 million that was already built into the Space Flight contract.

Lockheed Martin personnel who worked on the CSOC contract bid also are working on the FAA bid, Clemons said.

Industry officials voiced strong support for service-level agreements because it gives them more flexibility to address FAA's requirements rather than having specifications dictated to them.

"Service-level agreements get the FAA out of worrying about how a service is delivered. They should just worry about what service is delivered," Fritz said.

Throughout the two years the FAA has worked on developing the FTI contract, the agency has worked closely with industry, said Lauren Steinkolk, leader of the civilian research team at Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., market research company.

"They want a partnership with industry, and they are not just talking about it, but they are doing it," she said.

The agency has worked with the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association and has held meetings with more than 200 companies. The outreach efforts are beyond what is typical among government agencies, Steinkolk said.

"This is a large modernization program, and they don't want to get halfway through and find they were headed down the wrong road," she said.

Officials from the FAA want assurance that whichever company wins the FTI contract, it can deal with changes in technology, Coulson said.

"They have already seen so many changes in the telecommunications market that they want to be prepared for the next generation of changes," he said.

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