What comes after Networx?

The next federal telecom contract will focus on mobility, cloud and flexibility.

It might seem premature to talk about Networx’s successor contract, which will debut in five years, but General Services Administration officials have been engaged in research and discussions with agencies and industry to determine just what that follow-on contract should include.

They aren’t ready to share any details yet, but industry experts say there are technology trends taking root now that offer a clear sign of the types of services and capabilities to expect on the next contract, called Network Services 2020 (NS2020).

“Mobility is going to be huge,” said Susan Zeleniak, senior vice president for public-sector markets at Verizon Enterprise Solutions. “Maybe half of the revenue on the next contract will be mobile solutions, not wireline.”

Mobile services are offered on the current Networx contract, but they are just about “plans and phones,” she said. NS2020’s wireless offerings will cover more than personal communications.

For example, agencies will want wireless services to support a range of machine-to-machine applications, such as video surveillance and motion-detection sensors. Those applications would send data to an agency’s data center, where analysis software would determine whether an event warranted the attention of a human analyst. Agencies are also likely to want a variety of asset management applications for helping with facility operations and tracking vehicle locations and maintenance.

The wireless infrastructure to support those services will be based predominantly on Long Term Evolution technology, Zeleniak said. Verizon and other U.S. carriers have already started building their LTE networks, which are IP-based and feature much less latency than current networks. They should have the new networks fully deployed by the time NS2020 rolls around.

The mobility wave will also coincide with a rise in agency adoption of cloud-based services and a proliferation of those offerings under NS2020, Zeleniak and others said. In the mobile realm, examples of future cloud offerings include security and device management and custom application stores that agencies will create but commercial providers will host. Those types of solutions will be a departure from the services that have dominated Networx.

“Agencies are looking for end-to-end solutions, and Networx tends to be a commodity-type contract,” Zeleniak said. “We sell circuits, minutes and managed services [on Networx], but there’s not a real putting it together as an end-to-end solution that involves the application and how it’s hosted and managed. That’s going to be huge in the future, especially with wireless.”

Cloud, or network-based services as they are sometimes called, will also be a big driver for the advanced wireline capabilities expected to be a central offering under NS2020, said Edward Morche, senior vice president of federal markets at Level 3 Communications.

Network backbones will use the 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) standard, which provides a tenfold improvement over current performance. The technology will enable agencies to divest from their own premises-based computing equipment and replace it with all manner of network-based services hosted remotely.

“The backbone will become far more important than the local equipment, which will be disappearing and showing up inside the backbone,” Morche said.

Government-funded research and education institutions are already using test beds of those advanced network capabilities to lower the cost of collaboration between geographically dispersed groups, he said. Agency IT departments will also benefit. By the time NS2020 appears, 100 GbE networks will be much more widespread and economical, facilitating consolidated data centers and centralized services.

“The data flows are so quick [with 100 GbE], you can have your data center be in Omaha but your users in D.C. and not have them realize any change in distance,” Morche said.

On the other side of the coin, agencies should not count on older analog network services, such as frame relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode, being offered on NS2020 as they have been on Networx. The government is one of the last users of those technologies, which are now 10 or 20 years past their prime, Morche said. Most other enterprises have already transitioned to modern IP-based services.

“Until we stop forcing providers to maintain mandatory services, we are not going to see the government more broadly adopt new technology because it makes it too easy to hold onto the old technology,” he said.

Likewise, Zeleniak said, “the new contract needs to be a lot more agile” than Networx if it is to accommodate the richest set of products and services possible.

Under Networx, every type of service has to be a separately approved line item on a contract, and vendors must package their services into fairly standard configurations so they can be easily compared with other commercial offerings. That approach would become untenable if services on NS2020 are to flourish as envisioned and when products with rapid refresh cycles, such as mobile devices, are the norm, Zeleniak said.

The absence of professional services on Networx is another problem that has constrained agencies’ ability to plan and carry out modernization efforts, Morche said. “The more you have to bifurcate your spending as an agency, the more difficult the transition becomes,” he said. Both Morche and Zeleniak said they would like to see professional services offered on NS2020.

GSA officials plan to meet with agencies to share and collaboratively refine the NS2020 strategy, which they expect to release in fiscal 2013, said Frank Tiller, acting director of the Office of Network Services Programs at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

The office “is continuing the dialogue with its customers and industry experts; conducting market research on emerging IT and telecommunications technologies; and analyzing procurement, finance and services trends,” he said.

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