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Federal agencies are inching closer to a drop-dead date to transition their telecommunications services to Networx, a program that offers more advanced technology and services at lower costs. And it's looking more and more likely that some agencies simply won't make the move in time.

The two contracts that are under Networx -- Enterprise and Universal -- were awarded in the spring of 2007, and the General Services Administration set aside three and a half years for agencies to make the transition.

An additional one-year bridge contract extended services under the expiring FTS 2001 contract to June 2011, meaning federal agencies have less than a year to make the deadline. "No agency has said they're not going to make it," says Karl Krumbholz, director of network services programs at GSA's Federal Acquisition Service. "But our estimates suggest there will be some risk that some agencies won't make it."

At a May hearing, government and industry officials told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that complex technical requirements and overworked acquisition staffs are two of the main reasons agencies have been slow to transition their telecommunications services to Networx. Since the program offers lower prices for certain services, the delays in moving to the contract cost the government $22.4 million every month, they said.

Another cause for delay is agencies' decision to issue separate task orders for voice, data and wireless services. GSA had created an electronic database of services with the expectation that agencies would purchase all their voice, wireless and data services from one carrier, but instead they determined separate, customized services would be a better approach.

GSA, which measures agency progress on the transition by the percentage of FTS 2001 services that have been terminated, reported in June that slightly more than 50 percent of services had been disconnected, indicating that agencies have made progress since the new contract was awarded.

But Jeff Mohan, executive director of the Networx Program Office at AT&T Government Solutions, which offers 44 categories of services on the two Networx contracts, suggests agencies still have a long way to go. "Forty percent of the things left to go represent 80 percent of the money," he says. "What that tells us is there are items of higher level of effort to go. It's like moving all the heavy furniture last."

While no agency has fully completed the switch to Networx, some -- including the Energy Department and the Social Security Administration -- have led textbook transitions, according to Krumbholz. Other agencies should look to such examples, he says, in part by becoming more active in GSA's Transition Working Group, which brings together large agencies to share best practices and lessons learned.

"We've been through multiple transitions in the past, so we knew the importance of starting early in the planning," says Judy Saylor, director of networking and telecommunications at Energy's Office of the Chief Information Officer. "We identified the stakeholders, developed the acquisition planning strategy, developed a three-phase approach and became familiar with the contract. The key throughout the process was building partnerships with GSA, the vendor community and stakeholders."

While it's much too late to start early, Krumbholz says, agencies can take steps to expedite the process and avoid missing the deadline. For example, agencies first should create an inventory of services needed, open as few acquisition competitions as possible and then begin ordering services from existing Networx vendors that can transition services to their new contract, he says.

At the May hearing, some witnesses suggested agencies adopt a like-for-like transition strategy, which would allow contractors to match telecommunications programs already in place at agencies with similar services to speed the process. After completing the transition, agencies could add elements such as improved security or more advanced technology.

While GSA has set an Aug. 31 deadline for agencies to complete their orders on Networx, Mohan says milestones rather than set deadlines might be a more useful approach. Agencies should sit down with carriers to determine the services needed and then set deadlines based on when those services can be completed, he says. "Agencies should figure out when everything has to be done, and then they can back their plans into that," he says.

Even if agencies begin now and take all the necessary steps to make the transition, Krumbholz suggests it's highly likely some agencies will miss the June 2011 deadline. "Since we anticipate that, we are working on additional sole-source contracts," he says. "GSA will continue to provide services to agencies . . . so they will know that they're going to continue to receive contracting support from GSA even after these contracts expire."

Brittany Ballenstedt covers the IT workforce for Nextgov, Government Executive's online technology publication.

CORRECTION: The original version of this column had the wrong title for Jeff Mohan. He is executive director of the Networx Program Office at AT&T Government Solutions.

 
Reporter Portrait for GovernmentExecutive.com

Brittany Ballenstedt writes Nextgov's Wired Workplace blog, which delves into the issues facing employees who work in the federal information technology sector. Before joining Nextgov, Brittany covered federal pay and benefits issues as a staff correspondent for Government Executive and served as an associate editor for National Journal's Technology Daily. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mansfield University and originally hails from Pennsylvania. She currently lives near Travis Air Force Base, Calif., where her husband is stationed.

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