AT&T tapped to update NOAA’s network under 10-year EIS award

NOAA is approved for access and will be utilizing FirstNet. (Getty Images)

AT&T has been tapped to help the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) update its networking technologies, with the agency awarding a 10-year Task Order valued at $311 million.

The Task Order was awarded as part of the General Service Administration’s (GSA) $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) program, which is meant to be a “one stop shop” for federal agencies, making it easier to purchase telecom and IT network equipment and services as they update their technology infrastructure.

AT&T, along with Verizon and Lumen (formerly CenturyLink), have been among large contract winners.

For NOAA, the U.S. environmental intelligence agency, AT&T is delivering technologies that include unified communications, virtual private networking, IP-based wireless and wireline networking, as well as managing the network and security services, alongside NOAA.

The scope of the project is broad and calls for updating networking services across NOAA’s U.S. Territories and international operations, including headquarters and six line offices.

That includes the National Weather Service (NWS), National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS), National Ocean Service (NOS), Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), national Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO).   

Jeff Flick, deputy director, Service Delivery Division, OCIO NOAA said mobile wireless services are included in the Task order, though the full list of services is pretty broad since it’s intended to cover the majority of agencies.

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Terrestrial requirements are included, as are some satellite services – spanning both wireline and wireless operations.

“As an agency we’re looking forward to how the wireless industry evolves and how well those services are pushed out,” he said. And importantly, it's looking at what the costs.

The agencies see a lot of pressure from the major carriers to move off of legacy copper infrastructure, according to Flick. But it’s more expensive to build in fiber infrastructure in certain locations, versus using wireless options, which is more economical depending on the area.

“That’s going to drive a lot of our wireless business needs and requirements over the next few years,” he told FierceWireless.  

That scenario largely relates to NOAA’s sensor infrastructure, as the agency has thousands of sensors across the country that are on TDM-based technologies, which Flick said need to evolve. One of the cost-effective approaches NOAA is looking at is wireless, including 4G and 5G, and ensuring the appropriate level of coverage in those areas as the technologies are deployed.

Separately, according to Flick, NOAA also is approved for access and will be utilizing FirstNet, the dedicated public safety communications platform built by AT&T as part of public-private partnership with FirstNet Authority. That said, FirstNet wasn’t part of NOAA's decision to select AT&T, as the award was evaluated on EIS criteria which doesn’t currently include FirstNet.

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There’s always pent up demand for additional capabilities, Flick acknowledged, and as a science organization NOAA generates “a tremendous amount of data,” while also providing massive amounts of data to the public.

Some of NOAA’s responsibilities include daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, climate monitoring, and costal restoration, among others.

Network upgrades provide an opportunity to evolve, but it’s still the early days of the project.

“NOAA’s mission is highly data intensive requiring the most sophisticated advanced networking services commercially available,” said Chris Smith, VP-Civilian and Shared Services for AT&T Public Sector and FirstNet, in a statement. “This Task Order award is testimony to our capability to deliver robust and reliable services at scale and manage them end-to-end to help government agencies like NOAA improve mission fulfillment.” 

Given NOAA’s mission, special considerations have to be taken whenever making network changes, and Flick said there are very well-developed procedures in place to try and protect against known problems.

For example, NOAA has something called a Critical Weather Day. When that’s declared, there is a freeze so that all operational networks postpone any maintenance. That way if they have to deal with a network issue, it’s not maintenance-related but rather a hard outage, he explained, reflecting the need for resiliency in the network.  

“We’re reducing the risk of impacting information flow to the right people during a critical weather event,” Flick said.  

While AT&T’s EIS Task Order with NOAA is over a 10-year timeframe, the vision for the end result is likely to change dramatically in that timeframe, he noted, alongside changes in the science, technology and requirements.

EIS is largely a vehicle to allow NOAA and other agencies to more easily purchase services as they evolve and ensure their network can remain as secure as possible while still meeting its public mission.

“We know technology is going to evolve and we’re looking forward to being able to take advantage of that,” Flick said.