Critics blast GSA's revised strategy

General Services Administration officials were roundly criticized last week by members of Congress industry and users of its telecommunications services for their revised acquisition strategy for purchasing telecom services after the current FTS 2000 contract expires.

GSA issued last month a proposed revision to its plan for purchasing voice and data services that would allow vendors who win the long-distance FTS 2001 contracts to offer optional local services. Winners of GSA's Metropolitan Area Architecture local service contracts could offer optional network transport services.

Previously GSA had planned a separate procurement for long-distance services exclusively and MAA would call on bidders to offer only local services in specified metropolitan areas. The new strategy was designed to create competition sooner between traditional providers of long-distance services and companies that have focused on the local level.

GSA undertook the revision with the Office of Management and Budget after Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee criticized GSA's previous acquisition plan in a letter to OMB director Franklin Raines.

David Bittenbender chief of telecommunications at the Justice Department said last week that the revision puts the interests of some segments of the telecom industry ahead of the agencies that will use the contract. He said the new strategy bears little relation to the list of requirements drawn up three years ago by members of the Interagency Management Council a group of agency telecom managers charged with documenting users' expectation for the Post-FTS 2000 contracts.

Bittenbender said the new strategy will create a confusing array of services offered by multiple vendors and will tax agencies' ability to ferret out the best deal and keep up with changes."We'd like longevity and stability with our contracts " he said. "We're not getting budget increases so we will have fewer and fewer staff to deal with increasingly complex technology. We don't want to pick up more complex contracting relationships."

The proposal marks the second major revision to the Post-FTS 2000 acquisition strategy in less than a year. Last year's revision resulted from concerns raised by members of Congress notably former Rep. William Clinger and representatives from regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs).

11th-Hour Notice

At his confirmation hearing last week acting GSA administrator David Barram was riddled with questions on the revision from Sens. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and John Glenn (D-Ohio) ranking minority member of that committee. Both senators who were not notified of the proposed change until less than a day before GSA issued it demanded to know why GSA changed its strategy at the 11th hour.

Although Stevens interceded and told the senators he had requested the changes Thompson told Barram he wanted to see documentation supporting the new proposal.

"They need to come up here and lay things out for us " said a member of the committee staff. "We would ultimately like to see resolution to this issue. We thought it was resolved already."

Officials at the RBOCs reacted negatively to the proposal asserting that it would allow long-distance companies to compete in their territories long before they get an opportunity to widely offer network transport services. "Through the FTS 2001 and MAA contracts the government could give multiple vendors the capability to compete in my territory before I even have a chance to compete for it " said Ron Montague national account manager for federal services at US West.

Barbara Connor president of Bell Atlantic Federal Systems said she was "disappointed" with GSA's change of heart. "It is a step backwards " she said. "We believe this strategy is not consistent with the intent and spirit of the Telecom Reform Act."

Bob Woods commissioner of GSA's Federal Telecommunications Service last week distanced himself from the decision to revise the strategy. At an industry conference Woods noted that the action was instigated by Stevens and OMB and called the revision "an expression of policy" based on OMB's perception of how the government should react to telecom reform legislation.

"I do take some umbrage to the perspective that we had changed our strategy " he said. "[The revision] is an expression from OMB on what the administration policy is. I'm not zigzagging back and forth."AT&T and Sprint the incumbent contractors wholeheartedly endorsed the new proposal.

An AT&T spokeswoman said the revision reflects a "more balanced" acquisition approach that will "bring the advantages of local services competition to the government for the first time." A Sprint spokesman refused to comment on the revision but a company source said the changes are moving GSA "in the right direction.

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