Three and a half years. That's how much time the General Services Administration set aside for federal agencies to transition their telecommunications services from the expiring FTS 2001 contract to Networx, a program that offers them a broader range of services at lower costs.
It seemed like more than enough time, especially if the additional one-year agreement extending old services to June 2011 was factored in, giving agencies really four and a half years to make the switch. Federal managers have a little less than two years until the deadline, when FTS 2001 services will terminate. But less than a quarter of agencies have moved to Networx, a slow pace that costs the government $18 million for every month an agency delays its decision. And costs will escalate if agencies miss the cutoff and require emergency provisions to keep phones on, something telecom specialists say is likely to happen. How did it come to this?
More Than Just Phones
The Networx transition has proved more complex than GSA anticipated, according to Karl Krumbholz, director of network services programs in the agency's Federal Acquisition Service. The program offers more products and services than its predecessor, including more than 900 pages of contract line items for agencies to choose from.
AT&T, for example, offers 44 categories of products on the two Networx contracts, Universal and Enterprise, compared with 26 categories on its FTS 2001 lineup. The new products and services include a wider range of security services, more options for wireless communications, video- and teleconferencing, and advanced Internet protocol services such as Voice over IP.
Agencies also have had less time to sift through Networx's products and services because they face an unprecedented workload to award hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of contracts under the Recovery Act.
In addition, the number of employees who have the experience to understand the offerings has dwindled. The success of the FTS 2000 and 2001 contracts led agencies to rely on GSA and vendors to make their service decisions for them, and they reduced network engineering staff as a result, says Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting in Jenkintown, Pa. "In some ways the government is a victim of its own success," Suss says.
Another cause for the delay is the decision by agencies to issue separate task orders for voice, data and wireless services. Krumbholz says GSA designed the contract with the expectation that most agencies would purchase all their voice, wireless and data services from one carrier. "We haven't seen that play out," he says.
Under the 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, all multiple award contractors must receive a fair opportunity to win task or delivery orders in excess of $2,500. Agencies cannot place orders on Networx until they have completed a fair opportunity competition. By issuing multiple task orders for different services, agencies have created more work than GSA anticipated.
For example, NASA took 14 months to evaluate all bids before awarding Qwest Government Services a $14.2 million, eight-year task order to upgrade its high-speed broadband backbone. "In our experience, what we've seen is that different contractors provide different services in technically and operationally different ways," says NASA procurement specialist Vanessa Lindsey. In addition, they charge different prices for the same service. The portion of the fair opportunity process that took the longest to complete was retrieving the required information from vendors to conduct the evaluation, she adds.
As of the end of August, only six agencies had completed all fair opportunity competitions and only half had been awarded. "You can measure it several ways: by the number of agencies disconnected [from FTS 2001] or the number connected [to Networx], but any way you cut it, only 20 to 25 percent are transitioned," says Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting LLC in Vienna, Va.
But GSA is not ready to give up on making the June 2011 deadline. "There's a tremendous amount of work ongoing; we've done a lot of work that hasn't resulted in final disconnects," Krumbholz says, adding the agency has no plans to extend FTS 2001 bridge contracts.
By invoking the continuity-of-service provisions on the bridge contracts, however, GSA is all but admitting that the original June 2010 deadline is likely to come and go without the majority of agencies having completed the transition.
What to Do?
To avoid missing the deadline, agencies' first step should be to dedicate experienced telecom personnel to complete the transition, says Jim Whetstone, client service executive at Acquisition Solutions in Arlington, Va. Agencies should conduct a comprehensive inventory of their telecom services and assets. This will expedite their first orders on Networx and speed the acquisition process, he says.
"It goes back to being prepared going in," Whetstone says. "Having the right people writing the evaluation criteria and on the evaluation panel. If you have the right people, they know what to review, what to document, what should be looked at."
Still, he says, as in any major initiative, the government will encounter a few agencies that don't meet the cutoff. Woods and Suss predict the government won't allow those agencies to lose their service, likely opting instead to negotiate some sort of emergency sole-source contract extension-which will cost a lot.
Krumbholz still says GSA has no plans to extend the contracts and the agency is planning to meet the deadline. "At this point, we're not prepared to make an estimate" of how many agencies will or won't make the deadline, he says. "But it's clear that we need to make it, because if we have to put other contracts in place, it's an enormous amount of work for GSA. It takes resources and support away from the transition, and frankly, the costs on the current contract are higher."