VA switches network business to FTS 2001

The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to use the General Services Administration's FTS 2001 network as the vehicle that will replace the department's nationwide data network contract which expires later this year.

Harold Gracey, acting assistant secretary for information and technology at the VA, announced last week that the department selected Sprint to handle the department's data traffic on the company's portion of the FTS 2001 network. GSA awarded the FTS 2001 contract to Sprint in December.

Gracey said he was favorably impressed with the flexibility and service options available on the GSA contract. "We're fairly sure they can [meet our requirements]," Gracey said. "GSA has worked real hard to get this vehicle in place."

The deal with Sprint will replace the department's Integrated Data Communications Utility contract, awarded in 1990 to Science Applications International Corp. and Sprint. IDCU provides data service to almost 600 locations nationwide and averages about 200,000 calls each day, according to VA documents.

Gracey said he arrived at the VA this summer and, to his shock, found that the department had done no work to prepare for a follow-on vehicle to IDCU. He said it was clear at that point that there was insufficient time to prepare a solicitation for a follow-on contract. So he "locked in a room for five months" a team of representatives from throughout the department to brainstorm on ways to meet the VA's data networking requirements through existing vehicles.

"They were late working on a follow-on contract, so it was difficult for them to go through a full-blown acquisition," said telecommunications consultant Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates. "This decision certainly will save them time and allow them to move forward quickly with a company they already know."

Sandy Bates, deputy commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service, said the decision represents an opportunity for FTS to expand into a new area of business. "This is a major data application, and we're very excited," Bates said.

The FTS 2001 business gives Sprint, a subcontractor for SAIC under IDCU, an opportunity to have more control over design and management of the VA's data communications, said Jim Payne, assistant vice president for Sprint's Government Systems Division.

As a subcontractor, Sprint has had to follow the lead of the prime contractor, he said. With the FTS 2001 award, Sprint "[has] the ability to take them [VA] to the most advanced technology," Payne said.

Sprint likely will guide the VA toward more use of Asynchronous Transfer Mode and other technologies that will help the VA increase bandwidth and realize better bandwidth flexibility, according to company. A Sprint spokeswoman said the company will offer a complete menu of data services, ranging from low-speed frame relay to state-of-the-art ATM and Synchronous Optical Network technology.

Better bandwidth should allow the VA to make more use of telemedicine—the use of teleconferencing and electronic sharing of medical records and images over long distances to treat patients. "[Better bandwidth] will just allow us to make broader definitions and broader deployment of those types of solutions," Payne said.

Although no users have switched over to FTS 2001 from the current FTS 2000 long-distance network so far, Suss said he believes the new contracts—including a second one awarded in January to MCI WorldCom—will be more focused on data services than its predecessors.

"One of the big differences between FTS 2000 and FTS 2001 is that there are many more choices of data services," Suss said. "VA can migrate to just about any type of data network they want. But they have a lot of homework to do to decide what sort of solution they need. The tricky part will be designing the network to pick up applications like telemedicine."

Gracey refused to answer questions on whether the VA also would select Sprint to handle its voice traffic on the FTS 2001 network. He said the department was in the process of determining the best alternative for its voice network.

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