Running to stand still

Telecom managers in companies and agencies are struggling to adjust to shifting Networx timelines

The recent decision to delay the award of the Networx contracts until 2007 did not come as a great shock to companies and agencies that had been tracking the General Services Administration’s progress on the contract.

But the shift in timing — almost a year — doesn’t mean that agencies can relax their preparations for making the transition to Networx, according to telecommunications professionals from companies, agencies and consulting firms. Observers agree that the additional time means preparation can be less frantic, but not that it should be set aside for a while.

GSA now plans to award Networx Universal in March 2007 and Networx Enterprise in May 2007. The earlier target dates had been July 2006 for Universal and September 2006 for Enterprise. Networx Universal will provide a broad range of common services, while Enterprise will cover a narrower selection of more localized offerings.

“We could support the agencies in other ways during this time,” said Tony D’Agata, vice president and general manager of Sprint’s Government Services Division. “We can help them with their inventories, we can help them develop their technology road map. It’s perhaps a more organized pace than might have existed before.”

“Many of the agencies were off to a late start, and the delay will be welcome,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “Other agencies have been active upgrading their networks all along. For those agencies there probably won’t be much effect.”

Transition means different things to different agencies. Depending on which companies finally win the multiple-award contracts, some organizations might not switch providers. They will still have to make some changes, but their transitions will be less demanding than those agencies that change providers, whether by choice or necessity.

Take stock
The most crucial task agencies should be performing now is an inventory of their current communications services and equipment.

“The number and type of things that can be procured from the GSA [on Networx] are much more complex than in the past,” said Fred Knops, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “The closer you get to an accurate inventory, then the better it will be for transition. Services tend to disappear if you don’t have this inventory. It’s not a matter of just handing a bill to a new provider.”

The Social Security Administration is an agency that has been ahead of the curve in maintaining an inventory, according to SSA officials.

“We actually did an inventory of every circuit that we had,” said Phil Becker, associate commissioner of SSA’s National Computer Center. “We’re maintaining those tables.” The agency will continue to gather information to update the inventory until it is needed. MCI and AT&T both serve the agency.

Suss said even agencies that have done a good job so far cannot afford to relax. Inventory is “not just for getting a handle on what circuits they have but also what those circuits support and are used for,” he said.

That is especially necessary if the agency is moving a network from older technologies to IP, because “the network will have a whole new set of characteristics and traffic it didn’t have before,” he said.

“It’s not something you can do in a day or two,” said Hank Beebe, Networx capture executive for AT&T Government Services. “I would certainly hope that the agencies have this well under way. It takes a substantial amount of time, not just to get the inventory but to make sure they’ve got it correct.”

The carriers also need to be concerned with inventories, said Tony DeJohn, Networx transition executive at AT&T. When agencies change providers, the incoming carrier needs to get the inventory and immediately analyze it to determine whether there are any gaps between what the agency needs and what the carrier can provide.

Draw a map
Once agencies know what they have, they need to decide where they want to go. The change of contract vehicles is a good time to jettison services that agencies no longer need, upgrade technologies for remaining services and consider adding new services.

“A lot of agencies have older technologies,” D’Agata said. “The tendency right now is for agencies to move to an IP environment. It’s a good opportunity for agencies to solidify their technology road map.”

The question of whether to upgrade is not always a simple matter of technology, Suss said. For example, agencies considering switching to voice over IP, thereby converging voice and data services, must consider the ramifications.

“There are a lot of decisions around VOIP that go beyond the technology,” he said. “There are a lot of agencies that have different organizations to manage the voice and the data services, and the funding comes out of different streams. A more important consideration is that the prices for voice services are [already] so low that there’s not a tremendous amount of incentive to integrate voice and data in many cases.”

A few other agencies have pressing needs and will have to decide whether to use FTS 2001 — the current contract that Networx will follow — or find another vehicle to meet their needs, Suss said. The Networx delay may make Treasury Department officials seem prescient for choosing to forge ahead with its Treasury Communications Enterprise contract rather than waiting for Networx, he said.

However, Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, advised agencies to use caution and avoid turning to FTS 2001 for new initiatives. Although elements of FTS 2001 might correlate to what agencies would get from Networx, they won’t necessarily get the services in the same way Networx will eventually provide them, he said.

Sweat the details
Agencies should also be thinking about practical project management matters as the transition to Networx nears. Although the actual projects won’t be under way until several months later than initially expected, it is not too soon to plan for them.

Experience can be a harsh teacher, but a good one, Beebe said.

“We know how to do it wrong,” he said of AT&T. “We managed to leave some unhappy customers transitioning to FTS 2001 from FTS 2000.”

That transition was difficult governmentwide, but Beebe said AT&T expects the upcoming change to go more smoothly, partly because the company learned important lessons from that experience.

“We are more focused on the customer than we were then,” Beebe said. “This idea of taking the high road and acting as an appropriate corporate citizen is more pervasive an attitude around AT&T than maybe it was then.”

The path to NetworxThe history of the General Services Administration’s telecommunications contracts takes on a near-epic sweep when viewed as a whole. From the initial award of FTS 2000 to AT&T and Sprint in 1988 to that contract’s replacement by FTS 2001, awarded to Sprint and MCI in 1998 and 1999, and now the impending award of Networx, the agency has learned from mistakes, seen what works and planned its future by drawing from the lessons of its past.

Networx is actually two multiple-award contracts to be awarded in 2007. The program will emerge in a new era dominated by the demand for managed network services, wireless access and IP-based applications. Procurement practices and industry dynamics have evolved, too. Networx will give federal users more than 50 offerings — everything from old-fashioned toll-free long-distance lines to turnkey voice-over-IP solutions.

Although it will be infused with new products and services and will hold sway in a distant future — the program expires in 2016 — Networx unmistakably reflects its heritage. Like FTS 2001 and the long-extinct FTS 2000, Networx will be positioned as the contract agencies must consider first when buying telecom services. That will be a disadvantage for vendors that don’t get a spot on it and a boon to those that do.

1984: Antitrust litigation leads to breakup of Bell System. AT&T had been the government’s only telephone service provider before the breakup.

1988: General Services Administration awards FTS 2000 to AT&T and Sprint. Contract covers local and long-distance telephone voice service and limited data services.

1995: GSA merges its local and long-distance service organizations to create the Federal Telecommunications Service, later called the Federal Technology Service.

1996: Telecommunications Act of 1996 ends restrictions on Bell companies entering long-distance market.

1998-99: FTS 2001 awarded to Sprint and WorldCom (later called MCI and now merged with Verizon). As successor to FTS 2000, contract features new services, including some data and network services, in addition to voice. Contract also eliminates mandatory-use provision of FTS 2000, allowing agencies to consider other means of procuring services.

2004: GSA issues request for proposals for Networx, the successor to FTS 2001.

2005-06: Verizon and MCI finalize their merger, as do SBC and AT&T. Planned Networx award dates pushed to 2007.

Sources: Suss Consulting, Wikipedia, General Services Administration.

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