Report: Private nets will save big bucks

The government can save millions of dollars a year by consolidating traffic on private networks run by individual agencies, according to an interagency report delivered last week to the Government Information Technology Services Working Group.

The report, "Inventory of Private Telecommunications Networks Within the Federal Government," by the Integrated Services Panel, said the government now runs more than 70 private networks, according to Dave Bittenbender, the panel's leader.

Bittenbender, chief of telecommunications at the Environmental Protection Agency, said his group is using the inventory to determine ways to save money by aggregating telecom traffic across agencies.

"We're trying to look at what we already own and how we can do a better job in the future," he said.

The panel has already pushed forward changes that will save $4 million a year, Bittenbender said, by rethinking the way services are delivered to federal buildings that house more than one agency.

As the requirement arises, agencies order new services, but they give little thought about how to aggregate them with other agencies to achieve volume discounts, he said.

"If a half-dozen agencies are in a building, each service gets delivered individually," he said. "You could end up with several dozen wires going into a single building. If you add those services together, your price goes down for all of them. And the phone company still delivers the services the same way."

Federal agencies in Kansas City, Mo., are cooperating on a pilot project to iron out potential billing and management issues associated with network consolidation, he said.

In a letter he sent last week to John Okay, deputy commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Telecommunications Service, Bittenbender said opportunities exist for aggregation even among agencies with disparate missions.

"While the missions of the departments and agencies...differ considerably, similarities exist in both the functional requirements and the physical topologies of the individual networks identified," he wrote. "Such similarities are common enough that cost efficiencies will be gained through the consolidation of federal networking requirements within the Post-FTS 2000 acquisitions."

Although the report will not be issued publicly, the letter outlined its recommendations to GSA and the Interagency Management Council (IMC), a group of federal telecom experts headed by Bittenbender since last week. It said the post-FTS 2000 strategy should call for consolidated connections to telecom services in some local areas.

For example, some areas might benefit from programs such as the Washington, D.C.-area Government Metropolitan Area Network, a Synchronous Optical Network ring provided by Bell Atlantic and GSA that potentially will serve all federal agencies in the region.

The report said GSA should better coordinate telecom management practices throughout each region of the country. In addition, it called on the IMC to ensure that agencies investigate opportunities for network consolidation in conjunction with their ongoing efforts to consolidate data centers.

The report also recommended that agencies receive at least half of any funds saved through network consolidation. It noted that one of the major deterrents to consolidation has been concerns by agency officials that savings accrued would simply take the form of budget restrictions in the following years.

But consultant Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates, said he doubts the effort will save much money. There may be isolated instances where traffic can be aggregated, but he said consolidation can be taken too far.

"I don't think consolidation is the [way] government wants to or should go," Suss said. "Any large organization has multiple networks, and networks are tailored to different applications. There is no `one size fits all.'

"Consolidation drives up costs because it creates interoperability requirements that aren't really needed," he added. "The overhead associated with putting all of the networks together is not worth the payback."

Suss said consolidation will rob agencies of flexibility to buy services and infrastructure tailored to their unique needs.

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