GSA's unclear Connections

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The General Services Administration plans to award a governmentwide mega-contract by May 2002 to replace and enhance many of the telecommunications contracts it maintains nationwide, but vendors are concerned about GSA's approach.

The Connections contract will combine an array of telecommunications and network services and equipment currently offered through a mix of contracts managed by GSA's Federal Technology Service (FTS).

Proposed offerings include Webmaster services, billing and account management, wireless equipment and the development of applications that bring together voice and data communications, Trisha Sitnik, GSA's Connections program manager, told potential bidders at a conference last week.

During the past decade, FTS had set up various contracts to provide such services, complementing the basic telecommunications services offered through the FTS 2000 and 2001 long-distance contracts and the Metropolitan Area Acquisition contracts for local dialing.

Under Connections, agencies will be able to choose individual services or put together a complete managed solution, Sitnik said. "This is an initiative for FTS network services that allows us to move into the future very effectively, very efficiently and, we hope, in full partnership with our vendors and our customers," she said.

Simultaneously, GSA hopes to foster more innovative solutions by giving vendors leeway in deciding on what to bid. FTS officials want bids in three basic categories, with several subcategories (see box). But they have not detailed what they want, instead asking vendors to come up with specific solutions to bid. "We don't want to tell you what we want you to deliver. We want you to tell us what are the commercial offerings that you provide best" in these areas, Sitnik told vendors.

Many procurement experts have advocated allowing vendors to offer service solutions that meet broad requirements and goals an agency has identified, rather than having the agency set out specific requirements. But many vendors at the conference said they were nervous about the approach, which could cause problems for FTS when vendors submit bids, said Mary Ann Hovis, vice president of consulting firm Warren H. Suss Associates.

"A big question is whether FTS is going to get sufficient bids for all the services they need," Hovis said.

Vendors also are concerned about how many awards will be made in each category. FTS has not set a specific goal for the number of awards, instead preferring to wait to see the type of bids they receive. Without a goal, vendors cannot tell if they should attempt a bid on their own or should partner with another company to offer a broader solution, said a vendor representative who asked not to be named.

If FTS officials have to make many awards in one service area to provide all the services to meet agency demand, the contract will become difficult to manage, Hovis said.

Vendors also are concerned that FTS' May 2002 deadline for awards is too ambitious. But GSA officials said they need an aggressive deadline because many of the existing contracts are expiring. When agencies put together their own contracts rather than using a governmentwide vehicle, it can be expensive and time consuming, Sitnik said.

"We have customers that have requirements and needs that need to be filled," she said. "If we don't have vehicles to fill those needs, they will find other solutions."

The May 2002 award will be for solutions provided nationally. FTS will make other awards for international solutions in July 2002 and for solutions provided in specific states between November 2002 and January 2003.

The contracts that are now winding down include the Technical and Management Support contract, which expires during 2002; the Telecommunications Support Contract 2, which expired in September; the Wire and Cable Services contract, which expires during 2002; and the regional Purchase of Telecommunications and Services and Aggregated Switch Procurement contracts, many of which have already expired.

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A general framework

Connections, which replaces a slew of existing contracts, will offer services and equipment in three basic categories:

Equipment and Services

* Voice.

* Data.

* Video.

* Supporting equipment and services.

Support Services

* Professional series.

* Technical series.

* E-business series (including Webmasters).

Solutions

* Wireless (equipment, not services).

* Converged voice and/or data.

* Other subcategories (to be proposed by vendors).

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