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Interior unit to take on GSA for federal telecom business

GovWorks, an acquisition center run by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, will soon begin offering telecommunications services to federal agencies just like those already offered by the General Services Administration. GovWorks provides contracting services to federal agencies and the District of Columbia government. It will issue a request for proposals for a telecommunications contract open to all agencies in the next three to six months, said David Sutfin, chief of procurement operations at GovWorks. The as-yet-unnamed contract will likely provide local telephone service, Web hosting, wireless service and long distance, as well as direct access or point-to-point data circuits to agencies whose telecommunications needs are not being met by what's currently available, Sutfin said. Sutfin downplayed the suggestion that GovWorks' contract duplicates much of the services under the FTS 2001 contract managed by the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, which provides long-distance, Internet and data services to agencies. However, Sutfin says, many of the services GovWorks' contract will provide will mirror those in FTS 2001. Officials from major national telecom companies, including Sprint, which would presumably vie for the business, also said that GovWorks' proposal looks a lot like FTS 2001 and that the two contracts need to be differentiated. John Polivka, spokesman for Sprint's Government Systems Division, noted that under the design of FTS 2001, small and large agencies leverage the same buying power. He said that customers would look for that same equality in any new contract. Sprint is one of the two vendors now on FTS 2001. FTS 2001, open to all agencies, has successfully secured long-distance rates as low as 3 cents per minute for many customers. Sutfin said FTS 2001 has done a good job of securing reasonably good rates for services, but he contended that GovWorks' contract would give customers an even better deal. For one thing, Sutfin said, the contract will aim to aggregate different services under a single vendor, providing agencies a total solution rather than forcing them to pick and choose offerings from several companies. Currently, agencies using FTS 2001 purchase long-distance from only two national providers. However, FTS plans to reopen competition on the contract by the end of the summer, and several contracts have already been awarded to other telecommunications companies to provide phone service in local areas. Sutfin also said that FTS 2001 has been unable to meet all customers' needs because it has yet to be fully implemented. Delays in switching agencies over to FTS 2001 from its predecessor, FTS 2000, have cost the government $74 million in lost savings, according to the General Accounting Office, and have sparked two congressional oversight hearings into FTS's management of the contract. Charlie Self, deputy commissioner of FTS, said GovWorks' contract might be a competitor to FTS 2001, but he declined to make any assessment until all the details of the contract are finalized. "Giving federal agencies choice is a good idea," he said. But Self hastened to add that GovWorks should prepare for an arduous struggle if it gets into the telecom business. GovWorks officials "are going to find out that the telecom world is quite complex," he warned. "The proof is going to be in the pudding. Can they really step up to it? Can they really make the business case?" Dennis Fischer, the former commissioner of FTS, said the contract offerings closely resemble those under FTS 2001, and that GovWorks' entry into the market isn't unexpected. "While I was [commissioner] we always knew that people might come and want to compete," he said. Fischer raised serious doubts about how eager agencies might be to jump over to a new contract, considering the problems so many of them encountered during the FTS 2001 transition. "Change is tough," he said, "and change in government is tougher, and change in your telecommunications is really, really tough." Were he still commissioner, Fischer said, he wouldn't view the GovWorks contract as a threat, largely because of customers' reluctance to fix something that isn't broken, and because it's highly doubtful that any new contract could beat the prices of FTS 2001. GovWorks' proposed contract won immediate support from Rep. Tom Davis, R.-Va., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, who held two recent hearings into the FTS 2001 transition debacle and has raised concerns about FTS's contracting practices. "Davis thinks [this is] a good idea that will bring some healthy competition to GSA and perhaps iron out some of the issues contractors have raised about the existing process," said David Marin, Davis' spokesman.