GSA releases local phone service RFP amid congressional concerns

The General Services Administration last week issued a request for proposals for the first of a series of procurements under the auspices of its controversial Metropolitan Area Acquisition program, even as members of Congress and industry expressed concern about the program.

The RFP covers interagency local phone service for New York City and the surrounding regions. Subsequent MAA solicitations, due out April 10, will request bids for service for Chicago and San Francisco. The New York contract will run four years with four one-year options.

The MAA program, along with its companion long-distance service procurement, FTS 2001, has stirred some behind-the-scenes protests by Rep. Dan Burton (R- Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. In a letter to GSA chief David Barram late last week, Burton questioned aspects of GSA's acquisition strategy, including whether there is sufficient competition in local telecommunications markets to warrant the MAA solicitations.

Dennis Fischer, commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service, said he responded to questions raised in a widely circulated draft version of the letter, and he met last week with members of Burton's staff in an effort to alleviate the congressman's concerns.

Although Fischer was out of town when Burton's final letter was sent, he said last week he was expecting Burton to officially weigh in on GSA's acquisition strategy. But he added that he does not believe it will lead to delays in the MAA or FTS 2001 programs.

"We do not see any issues we can't resolve through the general contracting process," Fischer asserted. "There will be questions raised by vendors, and there will be clarifications and negotiations. We are trying to march forward."

Most of Burton's concerns focused on the FTS 2001 procurement. He wrote that GSA's post-award price management mechanisms— under which the agency would compare FTS 2001 rates every six months with those offered in the commercial world and decrease prices if necessary— seemed unnecessary for nonmandatory contracts.

Burton also questioned GSA's policies governing damage liability to vendors, which he said would increase costs to agencies, and its "noncommercial" pricing and billing.

"These issues raise concerns that the current acquisition approach could result in agencies paying high prices for telecommunications services," Burton wrote.

The letter said the issues were raised during discussions with potential bidders, and several industry sources said AT&T in particular had been pushing for Burton to challenge GSA's strategy.

An AT&T spokeswoman acknowledged company representatives met with Burton's staff. But she said the issues raised by AT&T in those meetings also were raised by other companies that met with Burton's staff.

Noting the concerns raised by industry, Margaret Binns, assistant commissioner for regional services at FTS, said she expects the road to MAA awards to be a bumpy one. "We know that we are forging new ground with this program," Binns said. "We have tried to do a crawl, walk, run approach," she added. "And we are at the point where we are getting past the first steps and preparing to hit the ground running."

Binns said FTS will identify by the end of April the six or seven cities that will be served by the next round of MAA competitions. She said those RFPs will come out no sooner than October to give FTS officials a chance to assess the performance of the New York contract.

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