USDA details plan, systems to rein in mismanaged telecom

The Agriculture Department, long-criticized for mismanaging its telecommunications systems, is one step closer to building an enterprisewide network that should help the agency control the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on telecom every year.

At the TeleStrategies conference last week, the USDA detailed its Telecommunication Network Stabilization and Migration Program (TNSMP), which the agency created in response to criticism from the General Accounting Office and Congress that the USDA was wasting millions of dollars a year because of poor telecommunications management.

The USDA spends about $219 million annually on telecommunications equipment and services but did not know where much of what it buys is deployed, said Holly Twining, who was the USDA's acting director of telecommunications and operations. She is now with the Transportation Department. "We had no ability to know when our network would fail," she said last week. "Each agency would deploy new telecommunications services and equipment and would not eliminate the old."

Tracking Services and Equipment

Under its new approach, however, the USDA plans to keep track of new services and equipment, how much it spends and how it can redirect resources. Under TNSMP, the agency already has reduced from 330 to 20 the number of people who can approve telecommunications expenditures. It also centralized telecom decisions within each agency and required agencies to forecast their telecommunications plans. "This was a radical change for us," Twining said.

For the past six to eight months the USDA has been looking closely at its telecommunications networks, said Ira Hobbs, the USDA's deputy chief information officer. "Where we have facilities co-located we've been trying to consolidate to reduce costs," he said. "We're looking at where there are redundancies, underutilization and opportunities [for sharing]. We think we have somewhat of a handle on what things are out there."

With the discovery phase completed, the USDA plans to start migrating to a single network called the Telecommunications Enterprise Network (TEN), which will allow agencies to share telecom services, equipment and operations across the department. The USDA also will deploy the Telecommunications Ordering, Billing and Inventory System as a front end to TEN; it will help the USDA order services and equipment more effectively.

Big Savings

The department estimates that it could save about $70 million, or about one-third of its telecom costs from FTS 2000 and local exchange carriers alone, by building a single network and using a single ordering and inventory system.

More and more agencies are moving toward building a single telecom network, said Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates.

However, the concept is not always easy to implement, Suss said. "Each agency wants the network to address its own unique requirements. If they give up control [of the network], there is less confidence that the network will evolve into what they need."

The USDA has not decided how it will build TEN and is considering many options, including outsourcing and sharing other agency networks, Hobbs said.`

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