Can EIS stay on schedule?
The General Services Administration and the White House have promoted the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions telecommunications contract as a key part of the IT modernization effort, but as the Sept. 30 deadline for agencies to issue solicitations looms, only a handful have cut large contracts and none have incorporated robust plans for larger-scale IT modernization, according to observers.
So far, just three task orders have been awarded. NASA signed an $11 million EIS contract with CenturyLink in April, while the Department of Justice signed a contract with AT&T in June for almost $1 billion. The Railroad Retirement Board also contracted with AT&T -- a 13-year agreement worth up to $10 million -- a few weeks before DoJ.
The Sept. 30 milestone is one of three that GSA set late in 2018 when it extended the 2020 deadline for agency transition to EIS to 2023 after federal agencies were slow to issue initial solicitations for the contract.
With so few contracts actually awarded at this point, however, Dave Young, the senior vice president of strategic government for EIS vendor CenturyLink, said the Sept. 30 deadline is feeling far less firm. "I believed it when it was originally stated," he said. "As time has worn on, I've lost faith in it."
Bill Zielinski, assistant commissioner for the Office of Information Technology Category in GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, said federal agencies are making progress in moving to EIS, pointing to the agency's transition scorecard, as well as drawing from the agency's review of transition plans.
Agencies' migration away from old Time Division Multiplexing circuits to Ethernet, which began under GSA's Networx contract, "is continuing and accelerating with EIS," Zielinski said in an Aug. 15 email to FCW.
Judging from conversations with agencies about their EIS plans, Zielinski said agencies are looking to make the move from TDM to Ethernet during the transition. They're also planning to move to voice-over-IP, he said. GSA has also seen requirements for Unified Communications in some agency transition plans, as well as interest in software-defined wide area networks.
Will EIS task orders be competitive?
Some industry observers, however, say EIS' goals to stimulate federal IT modernization are falling short and competition could be suffering as agencies initially move to support their networks with "like for like" replacement of those networks in solicitations.
That impulse to focus on basic functionality first then add modernization later, said Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group and a former commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service, tends to also push agencies to solidify their EIS contracts around services their incumbent carrier provides.
The DoJ contract, said Woods, wasn't heavy on modernization, and was light on bidders.
Multiple sources FCW spoke with said that contract appeared to have been written to align the agency more closely with its incumbent carrier AT&T. Along with other services, AT&T officials said the DoJ EIS contract brought 120,000 managed voice services users currently with CenturyLink and Verizon under the GSA's Networx contract over to AT&T's IP voice services.
AT&T declined comment for this article.
Data from the Federal Procurement Data System show there were two bidders for the $1 billion solicitation. There are nine EIS vendors.
"The DoJ contract," said Woods, "shows competition walking away" from EIS contracts when vendors don't think they have a chance of winning.
Others are seeing interest in modernization -- just not necessarily in agencies' near-term plans. "We're seeing discussions about how to get to the next generation technology," MetTel Senior Vice President Diana Gowen told FCW in early July. "Agencies are saying 'now we'll do like for like,' but they're also asking [vendors] to tell them how to get to the next generation tech."
Young told FCW in an Aug. 13 interview that more guidance for agencies is needed for EIS to provide maximum impact at agencies.
Young and Woods both said such guidance might come from the Office of Management and Budget, which could offer more help in drawing up solicitations that incorporate modernization plans.
That lack of firm guidance, said Young, has also helped foster misconception and possibly clouded agencies' vision about how they can use EIS. For instance, he said, agencies may not be aware that all EIS vendors can bid on solicitations, even though the vendors might not have an authority to operate. However, they can't actually provide service or bill for service without an ATO.
Agencies, Young said, should think hard about modernization up front before they issue a "winner takes all" solicitation. That could mean breaking up their modernization effort into smaller parts or task orders.
Currently, only the three largest EIS vendors -- AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon -- have ATOs. GSA's latest report shows the rest of the vendors are on track to get ATOs between September and November.
ATOs, said Woods, are key to agencies opening up competition to smaller carriers who might bid on smaller parts of larger agencies' contracts. "The lack of ATO takes people out of the game for large contracts," he said, which can push agencies towards their incumbent carriers. "Lack of ATO isn't a game stopper, but it isn't helpful."
The "like-for-like" approach to EIS, Zielinski told FCW, isn't adequate for modernization. "GSA and agencies have a shared responsibility to complete the EIS transition," he said. "Ultimately the final steps of the transition are contingent upon agency budgets and oversight" from agency project managers and CIOs.
Woods said GSA might consider forming "tiger teams" to help individual agencies with EIS preparations, but the agency's budget probably won't support that effort. If the September deadline passes with a handful of solicitations that don't offer much in the way of modernizations, Woods said, vendors could get Congress involved to review the contract's progress.
HHS looks to unify components
One of the largest, and possibly most complex, agency solicitations hit the street in late July, backed by a CIO enthusiastic about the EIS contract's modernization goals and possibilities.
Health and Human Services CIO Jose Arrieta told FCW on Aug. 16 that his agency issued its EIS "fair opportunity" solicitation to contract vendors the last week of July.
HHS has been a leader in harnessing new technologies, such as blockchain and machine learning, in support of its mission, and Arrieta said that embrace of innovation will extend to EIS.
He said HHS' leadership, including Assistant Secretary for Administration Scott Rowell and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Gen. James Simpson, brought all of the agency's operations divisions together to develop a combined, single solicitation for the contract.
"We consider ourselves one of the largest and most complex agencies in the federal government," Arrieta said. "Somehow, we got one fair opportunity that is a representation of all of HHS to the street."
"We think we will be able to make an award and implement EIS as a single entity," he said. "We think there's considerable savings, better service and increased security the long term of the contract in taking this approach."
"Our fair opportunity," he added, "will be extremely competitive… We've received signals from industry that it will be. We'll see what decision the technical team makes."
HHS, he said, "is pushing hard" to make the GSA's September EIS award deadline.
Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.
Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.
Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.
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