Mis-measuring Networx progress

Some vendors and consultants believe the General Services Administration has the wrong number when it comes to measuring progress on the Networx telecommunications program.

GSA has been tracking agencies’ progress on moving from FTS 2001 to Networx by counting the number of services that have been disconnected under the old contract. As of June, GSA reported that agencies had disconnected 98 percent of the services they had acquired under FTS 2001 — five years after GSA awarded the Networx Universal and Networx Enterprise contracts.

However, Edward Morche, senior vice president of federal markets at Networx contract holder Level 3 Communications, said the disconnect metric fails to provide a complete picture.

“Disconnects, as a metric, give you a warped perception of progress. It merely looks at what is no longer billing” under the previous governmentwide acquisition contract, he said. “It doesn’t give you any indication of the type of service being transitioned, whether it is a simple-to-transition one or a complex data service.”

Furthermore, GSA’s measurement provides no weighting in terms of the value of a particular unit. A $5 calling card is treated as the equivalent of a 10G wavelength, Morche said.

John Okay, a former GSA executive who is now a partner at Topside Consulting Group, echoed that criticism. “This metric gives equal value to a phone line, calling card or OC-192 circuit,” he said. “It fails to account for the wide variation in management complexity, time and cost to transition a calling card or even an office phone line versus a frame-relay port or OC-192 data circuit.”

GSA also measures Networx progress by the dollars being shifted from FTS 2001 to Networx. In June, GSA reported that 71 percent of the dollar value had transitioned to the new program, up from 68 percent in May.

However, some observers say the disparity between disconnects and dollar value suggests that some of the bigger-ticket service transitions have yet to take place.

Rick Slifer, founder and principal of Richard A. Slifer and Associates, questioned how much of the Networx transition so far has involved complex services. He cited stories of agencies tearing up calling cards and counting that activity toward transition. He also contrasted switched voice, individual toll-free lines and point-to-point circuits — the so-called low-hanging fruit of transitions — with higher-impact services such as IP data networks.

Morche expressed a similar view on simple versus more transformative network transitions. “The [disconnect] metric they are using is designed to show things in a positive light, the best possible scenario,” Morche said. “But they are not highlighting the issues around where the value is going.”

Complex data networks haven’t been moving to Networx at the same pace as items that are simple to move from contract to contract, such as calling cards and switched voice, Morche said. He noted that the issue surfaced as early as October 2010, when all five Networx Enterprise carriers testified before Congress about Networx’s focus on lower-margin, lower-value services versus IP-centric network activity.

Furthermore, Morche said a portion of what would have been Networx transition business is going to other contract vehicles, such as GSA’s Washington Interagency Telecommunications System 3 contract and Alliant. Agencies aren’t able to buy labor or program management through Networx, so they are turning to the other contracts to support their network transition needs, he added.

“It's a difficult situation for agencies under a significant budget crunch,” Morche said. “They don’t have the in-house program management skill sets.”

Widgets vs. services

Slifer, meanwhile, cited a number of reasons why the shift to more sophisticated services is taking longer than expected under Networx. A change from one carrier to another or an extensive upgrade makes the job more complex, he said. In addition, GSA uses a Transition Baseline Inventory that aims to help agencies calculate, in a macro sense, how many resources they need to transition and how long it will take to do so. But the approach has some limitations.

“The inventory was designed to count the widgets to get through the transition, but it doesn’t provide all the details needed to issue an order to a Networx vendor to install the services,” Slifer said.

The size of the federal workforce is another factor. Compared to the transition from FTS 2000 to FTS 2001, Slifer said the government is staffed at a fraction of what it used to be for such activities. Consequently, any delay or mistake becomes magnified, and there are fewer people to help with a recovery, he said.

“When you look at transition, it is a mammoth task,” Slifer said. “And if you look at some of the agencies that have not only been transitioning but upgrading and transforming at the same time, it is easy to see that without a crisp execution, they can quickly fall many months or years behind.”

Nevertheless, some bigger deals are happening through Networx. Last month, the Social Security Administration awarded CenturyLink a five-year, $233 million task order under Networx Universal. SSA said the company will be one of two providers for a national network of data, voice and video services and will allow the agency to transition that portion of its telecommunications resources from FTS 2001.

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