Down to the Wire

Help your agency avoid pitfalls when switching to the Networx telecom contract.

As government gears up for a seismic shift to the new Networx telecommunications contract, federal agencies are scrambling to reevaluate their needs and select vendors. But the transition to new technology is never simple. Evaluating, purchasing and launching a system can be time-consuming and taxing on an agency's resources and workforce. The move to Networx promises to be one of the most challenging technology initiatives for the new presidential administration.

Networx, managed by the General Services Administration, is the federal government's largest telecommunications contract, worth $68 billion over 10 years. It replaces the expired FTS2001 contract and offers the standard voice and data communication tools of its predecessor along with a suite of new technologies, including virtual private networks, videoconferencing and a host of Internet-related services.

An Office of Management and Budget memorandum released in August requires agencies to use Networx, unless they can justify purchases outside the contract. OMB and the General Services Administration will reimburse agencies for one-time setup costs associated with the switch to Networx. Statements of work needed to recoup costs were due Sept. 30, but when many agencies missed the deadline OMB extended it indefinitely.

In recent months, agencies have rushed to select vendors and submit statements of work in a flurry of activity on the contract. Chances are your agency is deep into planning its move to Networx. But there are some ways to avoid service interruptions and ensure a smooth transition.

The first and one of the most critical steps is to designate an official to manage all Networx transition activities. Chief information officers are in charge of notifying GSA who will be their agency's Networx lead. Having one point of contact reduces confusion and ensures that the guidance being issued is cohesive. That person can appoint support managers as well.

The next step is to determine which telecommunications services your agency is purchasing and from which company. GAO says the importance of establishing an accurate telecommunications inventory and inventory process during Networx planning cannot be overstated.

"Most agencies spent 2007 [developing] the inventory process," says Debbie Hren, GSA's lead for transition planning and coordination of Networx services. "They use the inventory for strategizing what requirements are going to be-whether you're going to keep voice services the same, for example, or switch to a more current technological offering, such as Voice over IP. It requires planning, whether you're switching the entire network at once, or one site at a time."

Most agencies will be eager to upgrade to the latest and greatest technology, Hren says, but she warns that the requirements process involves planning to make sure systems are stable during mission-critical times.

"You need to develop critical dates or a period for when certain things have to happen or can't happen," she says. "For instance, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] may not want to transition sites in the Gulf Coast during hurricane season. The [Internal Revenue Service] won't want to worry about its network during tax season."

Richard Williams, GSA's director of customer service for Networx, cautions that ill-defined requirements are probably the biggest cause of delays or confusion between agencies and contractors.

Definitions that are too vague or too broad can lead vendors to interpret requirements differently, causing discrepancies in the prices quoted. Clearly defined requirements are crucial to ensuring apples-to-apples comparisons, Williams says. Tight requirements also cut down on questions vendors must ask agencies to clarify their requests. Statements of work, if written and prepared in a clear, straightforward manner, can ease the process significantly, he adds.

GSA's Networx office is available to give agencies feedback on their statements of work. Williams says submitting an early draft of requirements can help make sure that the services agencies are looking for are available on Networx and can make it easier for vendors to provide accurate price information.

GSA is still missing requirements from 40 percent of agencies, making it difficult to generate a fair comparison among vendors or to gather accurate pricing information. "The sooner we get to statements of work, the better position agencies will be in," Williams says.

Hren emphasizes that up-to-date information about the telephone system an agency uses and the numbers to be transferred could prevent service interruptions during the switch to Networx. "I have worked transitions for a lot of commercial networks as well. Transition is transition. Telephone companies do this all day long, every day. They know how to work with each other," she says. "It's a matter of paying attention and not turning your head for a second."

Relying on those contractors will be critical for many agencies that are trying to implement newer services, such as virtual private networks, on a larger scale. "Even for those agencies that may not have had long-term experience with VPNs, the contractors have. So if you didn't have it before, they still know how to do it," Williams says. But it must be accompanied by rigorous oversight and clear, consistent communication between agencies and vendors, he adds.

Hren agrees that contractors could be the key to success. "Don't try to do it yourself. Lean on the Networx contractors," she says. "They know how to do this. They can see into their network and tell you what's configured to go where so you can collectively decide what needs to be done."

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