New FTS 2001 services tempt agencies

Unlike the Social Security Administration and other agencies that used elaborate FTS 2001 contract modifications to buy newer networking services, Energy Department officials had considered tools such as managed network services to be out of reach until the General Services Administration incorporated such items into the contract.

"Two years ago, managed services were not an option," said Gordon Errington, director of DOE's Network, Telecommunications and Engineering Division.

With newer services now more accessible through FTS 2001, DOE officials and others are thinking hard about using the central telecommunications contract to adopt new networking capabilities.

In addition to managed services — in which a contractor's staff help manage an agency's information technology system — offers attracting interest include IP-based virtual private networks (VPNs), managed security, co-location and Web-hosting services.

Agency interest in those capabilities has been sparked by pressure from the Bush administration and others to streamline and safeguard precious networks and other resources.

"We are looking at the network to ensure its robustness," said Karen Evans, DOE's chief information officer, who added that new federal security mandates come on top of existing initiatives to improve efficiency.

"I think all CIOs are challenged the same way we are here," she said. "We have to provide services and do it efficiently. That is the logic we are applying to the FTS 2001 services we are interested in. There is a lot of ease of use with the contract, but we have to make sure we do a full business evaluation prior to getting new services."

Agency officials are now doing that evaluation and estimate that DOE could redistribute the efforts of at least three full-time employees who perform tasks that would fall under a managed services deal. Further, DOE officials are contemplating the potential gains from expanding their corporate network to more sites through the use of VPN solutions.

That reluctance to jump into the use of newer network services is a common theme across agencies, according to telecom analyst Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. "The business case is king today," he said. "Agencies are not going to make a move unless they are able to put together a clear cost/benefit analysis."

To help build the business case for additional FTS 2001 services, GSA has stepped up the contract's price and performance promises. Overall, agency officials claim the contract will save the government $523 million for fiscal 2002.

Meanwhile, GSA is hustling to add more data, wireless, satellite, international and security offerings to meet federal demand. Also, the agency is pressing FTS 2001 vendors to provide a range of options to federal customers.

"It's not 'our way or the highway,'" said Denny Groh, deputy associate commissioner for service delivery at GSA's Federal Technology Service. "We are striving for a common-sense approach to infrastructures and ways to best manage those infrastructures."

"There were much more narrow offerings in the past, which were far less customized," Groh said.

David Pragel, director of FTS technology services for Sprint's Government Systems Division, pointed to custom solutions as a key company focus. "For the past two years, what we've done on the contract is to bring commercial parity through custom solutions," he said.

For example, Sprint recently worked with a military customer to devise a customized video-over-packet service to upgrade the customer's network from reliance on an outdated protocol to compliance with the newer H.323 multimedia standard.

Yet the variety of technology now available under the FTS 2001 contract is arguably the result of more than just GSA's efforts or those of primary FTS vendors Sprint and WorldCom Inc.

A zeal for new services followed the addition of AT&T and Qwest Communications International Inc. to FTS 2001, Suss said. Such services are crucial because the newcomers face barriers in trying to compete for the basic FTS 2001 services, such as long distance and data networking, which require companies to comply with a sprawling series of regulations.

"Emerging services is one category [in which] we can bring products and services to market, define the standard and have other providers measured against us," said Jim Payne, senior vice president of Qwest's Government Systems Division. "We feel we really have to concentrate on that."

For instance, in January Qwest began offering Web-hosting services to FTS 2001 customers. The company also offers secure VPN solutions and will soon debut a suite of new services, Payne said.

In the end, packing FTS 2001 with additional services will serve to distinguish the contract from its predecessor, Suss said.

But for some, the services have made their way into the FTS 2001 fold a bit too late. "To some degree, the timing was an issue," Suss said. "These offers took a long time before they were actually available to agencies, and by the time they were made available, most agencies had already gone through [a] transition."

GSA's Groh, however, countered the notion that agencies went without access to newer services while GSA officials streamlined the contract modification process to accommodate new technologies.

"I do not know of any business lost during this time frame," said Groh, who cited continued high demand for the services. "But there were customer satisfaction issues. The processes involved too many steps, and each step involved a prescribed period of time that was longer than it should be."

Naturally, customer satisfaction has moved front and center for GSA and its vendors. That satisfaction, however, has lately required more from all parties, as federal telecom buyers track the market and demand the same services that are available to commercial customers, experts agree.

"As soon as new services are announced, government customers are right on them," Sprint's Pragel said.

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