Net fills FACNET void

After several years of feet-dragging on a government mandate to do business electronically federal agencies are embracing the Internet as an inexpensive easy and fast way to conduct electronic commerce.

The availability of new commercial products and tools along with easy access to the Internet are in part driving agencies to use the Internet for EC. Many agencies now have solicitations electronic shopping malls and electronic catalogs all accessible via the Internet and the World Wide Web. For example the Air Force's contracting directorate at the San Antonio Air Logistics Center announced this month that all its procurements for less than $100 000 would be conducted over the Web. By posting requests for quotations on the Web and having vendors respond via e-mail in a standard format the contract office believes it can shave close to 15 days off the front end of the procurement cycle said Walt DuBose a procurement analyst and systems manager at the contracting directorate.

"All agencies are moving toward doing a large part of their business over the Internet whether it is putting a solicitation up there to download [or] accepting bids " said Tony Trenkle co-chairman of the Electronic Commerce Acquisition Program Management Office at the General Services Administration.

"The Internet is cheaper and easier to use than in the past and it's ubiquitous everybody's got it " Trenkle added. "There is also a lot of good technology out there that allows you to put together applications." New technology such as multipurpose smart cards for which GSA is releasing a solicitation this summer also will push the adoption of EC over the Internet he added.

Agencies like the idea of Internet EC because it allows them to present a single face to industry and a single point of access to opportunities or information about the agency. It also shortens and improves procurements and saves agencies money by replacing paper with information in electronic form.Those are the same benefits that were expected from the Federal Acquisition Computer Network (FACNET) a standard interface for agencies doing electronic data interchange in which two parties do a direct computer-to-computer electronic transaction.

In 1994 Congress mandated the use of FACNET but agencies seldom used it for procurements because of frequent network interruptions and lost late or duplicated transactions among other reasons. This year the government softened its mandate maintaining that the future of EC will be a combination of many technologies including Internet-based solutions.

Judy Monje assistant vice president at Dun & Bradstreet said the Internet has really spurred the use of EC in the government. "I think the government moving to encompass e-mail and the Internet is what's opening things up " Monje said.

"EDI is more difficult to implement than people thought. You really need to set up a trading-partner relationship on a one-to-one basis. The Internet allows not only the government but industry to do more business " she said.

NASA has been one of the early adopters of Internet-based EC particularly with its Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement program. Using the Internet the agency said it now can get a solicitation out to vendors in a matter of minutes.

"When a solicitation is approved we post it directly to the Internet and it is immediately available " said Jim Bradford project leader for NASA's Acquisition Internet Service. "The old process would require us to make 300 copies of a proposal then send it out to vendors. We easily save a week or more now on each procurement by posting it to the Internet."

NASA also provides an index of solicitations from its centers throughout the country in one place on the Internet. "In the old days vendors would have to contact 10 different centers. Now we offer a single point of access and have a search engine to search by specific product class " Bradford said.

Eventually NASA also will accept bids from vendors over the Internet according to Bradford. In the meantime it will enhance the service it does offer. For example in response to industry requests it now offers e-mail notification so vendors who register will automatically receive information on new NASA proposals they are interested in. "This is a step in the direction of push technology " which automatically sends information such as news to a user's desktop he said.

Trenkle said he expects to see a lot of EC done over the Internet in the next several years particularly for less secure transactions. There are still security issues to be worked out some of which center around how to authenticate a user and some are just perception issues of the Internet as the Wild West he said. Some agencies try to enhance security by using EDI. Because EDI is based on computer-to-computer transactions that adhere to a specific format and go through a value-added network (VAN) provider it is considered more secure.

The Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) plans to use the Web as a front end to contractors but it will use its EDI infrastructure on the back end to transmit the information. The agency maintains all Army weapons and ground-based vehicles. TACOM will begin posting its solicitations on the Internet later this year.

"We do a lot of interfacing with suppliers and they were telling us that they did not want to be EDI-capable before a contract win. They wanted us to use the Web " said Pat Dempsey-Klott team leader for EC/EDI implementation team at TACOM. "To respond to solicitations they won't need to be EDI-capable but when they win the contract they will need to be."

TACOM's approach is somewhat different from many agencies that use the Internet just for EC and not EDI which allows agencies to have a direct interface with their trading partners. "We will use EDI forever it is a security blanket for us " Dempsey-Klott said. "For us to plug in another EDI module is no big deal."The next step she added is the shopping mall concept where soldiers in the field will be able to buy products over the Internet from TACOM.

The VAN community also is embracing the Internet. "The VAN community and Sterling have adjusted very well " said Howard Stern director of government markets at Sterling Commerce. "We allow customers to use the Internet to address the demand side needs of the marketplace." Sterling is Web-enabling customers' EDI applications on the front end Stern said but keeping EDI on the back end.

In general the government trend toward using the Internet parallels what is happening in industry said Paris Burstyn director of telecommunications consulting at International Data Corp. "It is a nascent market but the trend is there. It will become increasingly popular " he said.

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