USDA to seek telecom proposals

The Agriculture Department plans to implement a robust departmentwide telecommunications network, but department officials are being tight-lipped on details.

A request for comments on the Universal Telecommunication Network project was issued last month, and a request for proposals is estimated for October, said Payton Smith, manager for federal market analysis for Input Inc., a market research firm.

The project includes network management, security services and transition support. It will provide a network to deliver services to citizens and support future requirements, according to procurement documents.

Speaking today at an executive breakfast sponsored by Input, USDA chief information officer Scott Charbo declined to elaborate on the plans, but said the telecom project has been around for many years without much progress.

"Essentially, I'm on a gag order," he said. "We can't talk much about that. It was at the point where we said, 'Basically, your funding is done unless we see some movement on the project.'"

He said the project is now on track, and officials are meeting deadlines.

The network is just one of several programs for the department, which divided its initiatives into four areas: security; telecommunication; budget and investments; and e-government.

USDA officials expect to improve system security by implementing departmentwide training. The Web-based security course was launched this month, Charbo said. "For the first time, we'll actually be able to say we've trained every employee on security," he said.

Also, officials are identifying about 60 to 70 major systems in the department that need to be certified and accredited to ensure security. Charbo said it was unlikely that they would meet a July 2004 deadline to certify every system, but they are starting with the main ones.

In the budget and investments arena, the USDA is aggressively working to reduce the number of information technology projects, Charbo said. Officials a year ago identified 576 projects, which he said was too many. With the fiscal 2004 budget, they brought that number down to 490, and for fiscal 2005, it will decrease to 372 projects. The reduction may mean increasing the size of the investments, but Charbo said officials expect cost reduction by examining each project closely and consolidating where possible.

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