Networx pulled in conflicting directions

Networx telecommunications contract architects, who have worked on developing the ambitious proposed vehicle for more than a year, are finding themselves pulled in different directions by industry officials, Congress and the agencies that will use the contract.

For more than a year, officials at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service have been trying to balance low costs for agencies with rapid changes in technology and the industry that provides it. After all their work, they have a plan for the contract, but it is still subject to change.

"It's all on the table," said John Johnson, FTS' assistant commissioner for service

development and acting assistant commissioner for service delivery, speaking of the details of Networx. He plans to release a revised strategy in a month or two, he said.

But Johnson faces a tightening window to finalize the contract. Sprint's place on the current FTS 2001 contract will expire in December 2006, followed by MCI's in January 2007. A one-year transition period follows each expiration date, but he wants to award Networx in time for agencies to have at least two years to make the switch. The program will also replace the assortment of Metropolitan Area Acquisition contracts that govern localized services. They will expire one by one during the next several years.

The warring opinions already have forced Johnson to delay a draft request for proposals (RFP). Originally planned to be released next month, it will be out sometime in the summer, he said.

The scope of offerings that a sweeping telecom contract has available is also growing, he said. FTS 2001 started with 24 core services and now has 35. By the time Networx becomes operational, Johnson said, there will be 56 core services.

"There should not be a large gap between what we're doing in FTS 2001 and what we'll do in Networx," he said. "If there is, we're not doing our job right. We're not trying to make up for shortcomings" because FTS 2001 is a success.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and staff members of the Government Reform Committee question the particulars of the planned contract, said John Brosnan, senior procurement counsel with the General Accounting Office who has been detailed to the committee.

Committee members have already held one hearing on Networx, and will probably hold at least one more, Brosnan said. "We're going to exercise our oversight authority," he said.

Johnson said he believes FTS officials and committee members are not too far apart in their views and it is appropriate for Congress to consider all possible configurations the new contract could take.

The major questions that Johnson is still wrestling with pertain to the foundation of Networx, such as whether there should be one or two contracts.

FTS' plan is to offer one contract called Networx Universal for wide-ranging services, and a second called Networx Select

for more localized and possibly more cutting-edge offerings. But critics have suggested that the larger Universal vehicle might squeeze contractors on the Select contract out of the market, especially if FTS awards the two contracts months apart, as planned.

Another issue is the role that systems integrators should play. With voice and data services converging, integrators are increasingly called upon to do network projects for agencies.

"The role of the integrator today is very apparent," Johnson said. "The question is, does Networx need to have a separate integrator component, or should we look at the whole of offerings from FTS?" Other FTS contracts offer integrator services, he said.

Also, agency officials have grappled with the rapidly changing face of telecom and network technology. IP networks are in growing demand now, and voice over IP is inexpensive, Johnson said. But with conventional long-distance telephone service rapidly dropping and expected to reach a penny-a-minute rate, "what sense does it make to move to an IP infrastructure?" he asked. Voice over IP may drop to less than a cent a minute to encourage the migration, he said.

"A penny a minute is a nice number, but the unfortunate thing is a penny a minute may not be enough," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc. in Washington, D.C. "It's not cheap when you're dealing in volumes. People have to understand that economies inside the federal environment are dependent on volumes that are nowhere else existent in the enterprise space. Small changes can save millions of dollars."

Dzubeck said he believes FTS officials have largely made up their minds about what shape they want Networx to take, despite their willingness to listen to other viewpoints.

One of the most important questions for the officials to settle is how to ensure the contract offers current technology, he said. Agency leaders will increasingly want the newest and best available technology.

"You can't be a Luddite and work for the federal government anymore," he said. "You'll get hung out to dry. You have to bring technology in that increases productivity and saves money. The years of stagnation are over."

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