An industry team led by Harris Corp. has begun transitioning various sites for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to new satellite equipment, and expects to complete the upgrade by the end of 2006.

Harris is upgrading the satellite equipment under the FAA’s Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program, a large-scale upgrade of equipment at more than 4,400 FAA facilities across the United States.

The satellite part of the program is designed to replace old equipment at remote FAA sites in order to provide improved backup radar, weather and air-to-ground communications between operating aircraft and FAA facilities.

“While some critical communications rely on fiber, some can’t and have to have satellite, and some need both in order to have redundancy,” said David Helfgott, chief executive officer of Washington-based Americom Government Services, which is teamed with Harris on the program.

Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris has overseen the FTI program since 2002. The satellite component is an $85 million part of the 15-year, $3.5 billion overall program. Harris received the contract as a change order in August 2005, according to Bob Riley, Harris’s director of the FTI satellite program, who responded to questions via e-mail May 31.

While Harris is responsible for the overall management and systems engineering of the satellite component, Globecomm Systems Inc. of Hauppauge, N.Y., will provide satellite equipment and installation, and Americom Government Services will be providing satellite bandwidth from two Americom satellites.

The project relies on Ku- and C-band capacity on the AMC-9 and AMC-6 satellites, Helfgott said. Americom Government Services will be responsible for monitoring the satellite links it provides as well as allotting capacity, Helfgott said.

Riley said the upgrade will allow such new functions as voice compression and larger antennas that will improve communications speeds. High-bandwidth satellite communication s between traffic-control sites had not been possible before the upgrade occurred, Helfgott said.

“It’s really a complete re-conceptualization, making communications more modern, more flexible and frankly, more powerful,” Helfgott said.

Harris completed its first site for the upgrades in Key West, Fla., in early May, and has finished 19 others since then, according to Riley. The Key West site serves the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, according to a May 10 press release from Harris. Some existing sites also will be deactivated as part of the program, the press release said.

The team is building the new infrastructure while the old equipment continues to operate, and plans to transfer users to the new system gradually as sites are completed. Services will begin getting switched over in June, Riley said. One site is currently up and running in a test capacity, Riley said.

While the satellite component is proceeding on schedule, the FTI program as a whole — which is projected to save more than $600 million in operating costs during its lifetime, according to Harris — has encountered recent difficulties.

In April, the Office of the Inspector General released a report saying that the program had an unrealistic schedule and was unlikely to be completed on time. It also cited problems with the transition from legacy systems to the new systems, which it said could be a safety issue. The inspector general’s office said in a May 26 statement that it plans to conduct a follow-up audit of the program.

David Barnes, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said they have focused their inquiries on the ground portion of FTI at this point, rather than the satellite component.

FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said June 1 that the audit had focused on management and budget issues unconnected to the satellite portion of the project.

“There are no safety issues dealing with the FTI satellite component,” she said.

Harris spokesman Brent Dietz did not return follow-up inquiries made June 1 related to the inspector general’s audit.