FTS 2001 snafus irk agencies

About nine months after the General Services Administration awarded the final contract for the FTS 2001 telecommunications program, the highly anticipated transition to the next-generation long-distance network has been hampered by excessive bureaucracy, limited vendor staff and procrastination by user agencies, according to federal agencies.

Only one agency, the Defense Department, has moved substantial traffic to FTS 2001 from the predecessor FTS 2000.

The result has been frustration among federal agencies that had looked forward to quickly reaping the promised savings of the lower-priced new contracts but have been unable to obtain billing and ordering services, telecom lines and network management services.

"We've been really disappointed," said Linda Ritch, telecommunications manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, which selected Sprint as its FTS 2001 carrier. "We were one of the first agencies to jump in [to FTS 2001] full force, but it's just been one stumbling block after another."

Keith Jackson, associate chief information officer at the Agriculture Department - which chose MCI WorldCom - cited similar problems. "There is a level of frustration over installation not occurring when it was initially planned," he said. But, he said, the company's performance has improved during the past month.

GSA's Federal Technology Service awarded the first FTS 2001 contract in December 1998 to Sprint and awarded the second to MCI a month later. Most agencies have selected one of the two vendors. The contracts call for substantially lower prices than the current FTS 2000 contracts, held by AT&T and Sprint.

But most agencies have been unable to take advantage of the lower prices because the transition has moved at a snail's pace.

For example, according to Ritch, it took Sprint workers three weeks to install a single T-1 line at an EPA facility.

For Jackson, who asserted that MCI has been trying to meet his department's needs, it appeared MCI may not have recognized how much effort would be required for the transition. He said MCI seemed "unprepared" for the level of cooperation with local exchange carriers.

Jackson said he was annoyed when MCI didn't notify him that a transition would not take place until the day on which the action was scheduled.

DOD also had to delay transitions because of a lack of coordination between MCI and local service providers.

One federal telecom worker blamed the delays on the bureaucracy built into the transition process by GSA and Mitretek Systems, the contractor helping GSA manage the FTS 2001 procurement. He said Mitretek, representing GSA, has forced the FTS 2001 vendors to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops when tailoring the contracts to the needs of agencies.

"They want an excruciating amount of information," the source said. "It seems GSA is taking a very pedantic approach to contracting."

Frank Lalley, assistant commissioner for service delivery at FTS, acknowledged that GSA and agencies have been stuck in "the old process" of asking vendors for government-specific services that may differ from standard commercially available services. This process consumes time as the government and vendors fall into prolonged negotiations, he said.

"We are trying to encourage government to accept as close to the commercial offering as possible," he said.

Agencies that want Managed Network Service, an option offered by Sprint that would enable agencies to outsource the management of their telecom operations, have been forced to wait while attempts to add the service to FTS 2001 have been bogged down in negotiations, Lalley said.

That may explain why Ritch complained that Sprint's services for ordering, billing and automatic number identification were not in place when the EPA needed them. "You'd think they would have gotten their ducks in a row by now," Ritch said. "We're very frustrated."

USDA's Jackson said the problems with network upgrades also have impacted MCI customers.

Bob Bubniak, associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he has taken the initiative as chairman of the Interagency Management Council to bring together agencies with GSA and Sprint to resolve the situation in a series of meetings in the past month.

Regardless of the outcome of the discussions, the transition will remain problematic until Sprint and MCI eliminate the bugs. Bubniak said Sprint, the VA's FTS 2001 vendor, "doesn't seem to have adequate staff" to handle the workload associated with the transition.

A Sprint spokesman said the problems with the EPA were distressing but added that they were not unusual given that the EPA is one of the first agencies to transition to FTS 2001. "As part of being at the forefront, sometimes you are also the first to discover obstacles," he said.

Jerry Edgerton, MCI's senior vice president of government markets, said much of the delay was a result of the "four to six months" it took agencies to choose between the two vendors. He portrayed the complaints as isolated incidents.

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