Army creates BPAs for wireless services

The Army is setting up blanket purchase agreements with wireless contractors in an effort to obtain better deals and improve oversight of the increasingly popular devices and services.

The Army Signal Command's (ASC) Army Telecommunications Directorate (ATD) has established four BPAs between the Army Communications-Electronics Command (Cecom) Acquisition Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and wireless vendors AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications Inc., said Kim Jackson, director of ATD.

ATD officials expect that more than 80 percent of the installations will move to one or more of the exclusive BPAs during the next two years.

"Our goals are to provide a common, integrated structure for ordering, an inventory of services database, streamlined acquisition, economies of scale and a full range of technical solutions for our Army commanders," Jackson said.

Last month, Cecom issued a combined synopsis/solicitation announcement to find other vendors — including those not currently on the General Services Administration schedule — interested in providing wireless services. Vendors were asked to submit a formal proposal by Aug. 15.

The Army intends to establish multiple future BPAs, Jackson said, adding that the awards represent a "new way of doing business, standardizing throughout the Army and" the Defense Department.

"Since the oversight of wireless services provided at many installations did not exist and there was no inventory of services' databases, ASC stepped in to streamline acquisition and provide economies of scale," Jackson said. "These current BPAs provide services within the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. More BPAs, [which] will also provide services at overseas locations, are in the works and should be offered in the near future."

Since establishing its first BPA in April with AT&T, feedback and demand from the Army's Directors of Information Management "has been tremendous," Jackson said.

Features of the AT&T BPA include:

* An immediate 10 percent discount on services, credited to the monthly bill.

* Free mobile phones valued at up to $100 per user.

* Forty percent savings on other hardware, including Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices.

The BPAs are not based on a guaranteed minimum or maximum volume of orders or services, and the Army does not promise vendors a specific volume or financial threshold for services.

Chris Hill, vice president of government markets at AT&T Wireless, said that in the past, Army installations did their own contracting, locally or on a regional basis, and that aggregating all wireless needs into BPAs benefits DOD and the vendors.

"The savings the DOD can achieve are much greater than on an individual basis," said Hill, adding that it was becoming increasingly difficult for vendors to keep up with new technology and specific demands associated with many separate contracts.

"I think the [ASC's] strategy is dead on," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force procurement executive. "It is aggregating requirements and figuring out where their money is going and getting that quantity discount."

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., said there was a tendency at the Army base level to buy one or two items at a time. But with BPAs, the government gets a better deal because the pricing is based on aggregated demand, "and you can still have base-level folks make purchases."

Hill said the BPAs also enable the Army to make more efficient use of a diminishing workforce because fewer contracts require fewer personnel to manage them.

The BPAs provide ASC with its own vehicle for acquiring a full range of wireless services, rather than going through multiple GSA contracts, and also illustrate the "widespread validation of mobile services," said Christopher Doherty, a spokesman for Nextel.

But securing the devices is a primary concern. "There are lots of issues with wireless that have not been resolved, including security, which have been magnified as pricing goes down and availability goes up," Suss said. "It's very easy for DOD folks to buy [commercial off-the-shelf] stuff today, and yet there are significant risks associated with the use of these technologies."

The Army's Jackson said, "Security of wireless devices is an issue that is still being addressed within DOD."

This month, John Stenbit, DOD's chief information officer, said officials are planning to issue stricter rules for how personnel use wireless devices. They worry that sophisticated wireless devices could potentially be used to overhear or even record sensitive conversations.

Stenbit said restraints would be put on the types of devices DOD personnel could use and where they could be used. He said he expects the department to release the new rules by the end of the month.

Suss said finalizing DOD's security policies and procedures for wireless devices has been made increasingly difficult as the technologies have become more ubiquitous.

"The functionality and convenience are so great, which makes it increasingly difficult to establish security policies needed to properly control usage and suppress the DOD's appetite," Suss said. "BlackBerries are a great example. They are being bought with government credit cards straight from commercial providers and they're not secure."

Suss said he didn't know exactly what messages were going back and forth between DOD users on BlackBerries, "but it's a pretty good bet there's some information flowing on them that shouldn't be."

Suss said that by channeling wireless acquisitions through the BPAs, DOD officials can better monitor wireless usage. It also enables them to change procurement strategies as security policies evolve, which is especially important for nonsecurity-related risks that people cannot predict, such as WorldCom Inc.'s bankruptcy filing, he said.

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More to come

The Army Signal Command (ASC) has four blanket purchase agreements with commercial wireless services and equipment providers that the Defense Department can use.

More BPAs are on the way. Ada Veney, senior communications specialist in the ASC's Army Telecommunications Directorate, said the four BPAs are with AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless and Nextel Communications Inc.

The Army is working on BPA agreements with VoiceStream; Verizon; SkyTel Corp., a subsidiary of WorldCom Inc.; AllTel Corp. and Arch Wireless Operating Co. Inc., Veney said.

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