Laptop lease will stretch funds, expand tech access

The Commerce Department's Census Bureau plans to release a solicitation Tuesday for as many as 29,000 laptop computers and for the first time wants to lease the machines instead of buying them outright.

Through its Laptop Project Agreement, Census will supply data collectors in the field with an inventory of notebooks to support ongoing monthly surveys and the decennial census. The four-year indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract could be worth as much as $50 million if all options are exercised.

Initially, the notebooks will support the Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing process, which until a year and a half ago was done on a monthly basis with paper and pencil, said Robert Marx, associate director for decennial census activities.

"For the 2000 census, we will use the notebooks as part of a quality-check survey that takes place at the end of field activities where we go back and take a sample of households to see how well the initial process went - whether we missed people," Marx said.

The 10,000 to 15,000 people who will conduct the quality-check interviews will have computer matching software on their notebooks that will compare the original census return with the answers gleaned during the second interview. He said the notebooks for the 2000 census would only be used for about eight weeks, and therefore he "could understand" why leasing the machines would be a smart move.

Leasing the notebooks will give the bureau more flexibility with funding and access to the most recent technology and will allow the agency to replace outdated models faster, said Alba Sanchez, contracting officer of Census' laptop acquisition. But while the bureau prefers to lease the computers, it will consider the option to purchase, she said.

But leasing equipment in the government does not have a good track record, said Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. For example, the amount of money some agencies have paid to lease a mainframe over the years would have been better spent on purchasing the machine, he said.

"Is it false economics to pay one and a half times the purchase price over a 10-year period?" Dornan asked. "I don't see [leasing] as a trend. In most cases, unless you need a system for six months, it doesn't make sense." Vendors, he added, do not want to be saddled with outdated technology.

Toshiba said it is following the procurement and plans to pursue it through a teaming arrangement. "We are very much aware of the [Census Bureau] opportunity and are involved," said Jan O'HARA, area sales manager for government sales for Toshiba. "We will be working with our teaming partners, and it will depend on our partner whether" we offer leasing as an option.

Census says it needs up to 3,500 new units per year over a four-year period starting in late fiscal 1996, plus an additional 10,000 to 15,000 units for decennial census activities through fiscal 2000. Minimum basic requirements of the laptops include: a 486/50 MHz processor or above; a minimum of 8M of RAM, expandable to 16M or more; a minimum battery life of three hours; and a weight of no more than 5.25 pounds.

The Laptop Project Agreement, the equivalent of a request for proposals under Commerce's new streamlined acquisition procedures, will be released on the World Wide Web at http://www.conops.doc.gov on or about June 18.

George Fuster, president of International Data Products Corp., said company is interested in the Census procurement, noting the company's success in the government. IDP holds the Army Portable-1 and Lapheld II contracts. Fuster added that the company can be flexible when it comes to leasing notebooks. "If the government wants to lease them, we can provide that."

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