Rethinking acquisition: Addressing the tectonic shift in telecom services

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For nearly three decades, the General Services Administration has managed a series of overarching contracts for telephone services and other agency communications needs. What was covered by those contracts depended on clear definitions of what constitutes telecommunications services.

This time around, however, things aren’t nearly as clear-cut — and GSA is approaching the acquisition differently to address the tectonic shift in telecom services.

Potential bidders on the next version of the agency’s telecom contract — the $50 billion, 15-year Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contract that anchors GSA’s Network Services 2020 strategy — are watching hopefully as the agency’s ideas take shape. There are some parallels to past efforts, but some key differences as well.

GSA officials have said they expect EIS to draw more — and more diverse — potential contractors than the five telecom carriers that currently provide services through the Networx vehicle. They said they expect to attract those nontraditional companies in part because of the new contract’s longer life, which also requires fewer mandatory services.

There has been some speculation that Google or other Silicon Valley-oriented technology and communications companies might be interested as prime contractors. Multiple sources told FCW, however, that those kinds of firms would more likely partner with companies that control traditional telecom infrastructure, which the contract allows.

A broader scope

For EIS, GSA is working with industry stakeholders to craft a more flexible and comprehensive way to address advancing telecom services. NS2020 is intended to be the federal government’s strategic sourcing center for network-based and network-enabled services. It will not be one big contract, however, but rather a series of vehicles that cover regions in the U.S. and provide a wider variety of services.

GSA released its much-anticipated request for information for EIS in April 2014 and a draft RFP this past March. Officials scheduled a series of meetings from April to June aimed at soliciting industry feedback. The agency is aiming for a July release of a formal request for proposals, but officials have said they could stretch the final deadline if needed.

Mary Davie, GSA’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Integrated Technology Services, which oversees the Networx and EIS programs, has said her agency hopes EIS will serve at least 30 percent of the $6 billion annual federal communications market.

She said the aim for NS2020 is to evolve GSA’s contracting capabilities as commercial and federal telecom markets move beyond hardware-based networks, owned legacy infrastructure, and even cloud computing and mobile services toward more open and innovative services and technologies. EIS will have a broad scope, including a wide range of commonly procured communications products and services, so that agencies will no longer have to split their enterprise requirements across multiple procurements, she added.

The draft RFP for EIS outlines (over the course of a few hundred pages) the government’s wish list for the following:

  • Data services
  • Voice services
  • Contact center services
  • Colocated data center services
  • Cloud services
  • Wireless services
  • Commercial satellite communications services
  • Managed services, including audio and video teleconferencing

When the massive draft RFP was issued, there were some industry concerns about how NS2020 was taking shape, but carriers see promise in GSA’s approach to opening up collaboration and allowing room for evolution.

Learning from past mistakes

Lisa Bruch, CenturyLink Government’s vice president of federal sales and marketing, said GSA has proven that it can handle shifting technological and market changes.

In the late 1990s, GSA navigated a dramatically changing telecom market in which long-distance and local telephone companies and services were blending into one another and the shift toward IP-based services began. With Networx predecessor FTS2001, Bruch said, the agency gave itself and bidders room to evolve and unfold new capabilities spurred by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Networx, which launched in 2007, further redefined telecom acquisition.

Now with telecom services becoming commoditized and integrated into a whole range of IT systems and capabilities, GSA again is facing a tricky market and technology crossroads, Bruch said. The business principles GSA is pursuing under NS2020, such as acquiring current-generation services for fixed and wireless and lowering costs using commercial services, have not changed, she added.

“What’s shifted is the state of the industry,” she said.

“I don’t know of any other industry where change is happening at such a rapid pace,” said Mike Leff, AT&T Government Solutions’ vice president for civilian government business. “Our customers continue to change how they are buying services and solutions, moving more toward a consumption-based model. We are also seeing a shift away from point solutions to end-to-end solutions that can scale. NS2020 and contracts like EIS are well aligned to where industry is headed.”

Furthermore, “NS2020 will not only provide the foundational infrastructure and services to include managed networks, Ethernet, virtual private networks and regional telecommunications,” but the new contracts “will have the flexibility to address several big megatrends around strategic services, including the convergence of IT and telecommunications, network, mobility, cloud and the Internet of Things.”

EIS also represents an opportunity to learn from Networx’s mistakes. Although that vehicle, which expires in 2017, tried to tackle the increasingly unstable nature of what telecom services have become, Bruch said Networx was too detailed in what it offered. With EIS, GSA is taking a looser approach and defining services and technology in less detail — and hopefully, she added, not trying to manage technology development too aggressively.

Leff and Bruch agreed that EIS and NS2020 demonstrate that GSA is moving proactively and collaboratively to address rapidly evolving federal telecom needs. However, Bruch said one of her biggest worries about EIS is that the agency will become too focused on the trees and not see the forest by being too specific in defining everything it wants.

“You don’t go to the hardware store when you’re buying a house and try to design the kinds of the bolts you will use on the second floor,” she said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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