Agencies are facing a telecom revolution with few big thinkers to lead
A new delay in awarding the governmentwide Networx contracts masks a larger problem that telecommunications analysts say could shape federal telecom for years to come. Despite the government’s ability to use technology in remarkable ways, federal officials seem perplexed by 21st-century telecom technology, which keeps evolving.
Technology that can efficiently link the most remote outposts to the average federal office worker in a cubicle in Washington, D.C., should be a welcome addition. But as with many previous undertakings — building the interstate highway system or putting a man on the moon, for example — today’s network challenges, especially security issues, appear daunting. Some industry experts worry that the government has few telecom visionaries and even fewer innovators willing to take risks.
“When the networks come down or get paralyzed, everyone is going to be concerned,” said Bob Woods, a former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service who is now president of Topside Consulting Group. Many federal officials treat network security as an issue that only concerns the local phone company, he said.
The federal government is not ready to handle the vast telecom services changes that loom on the horizon, said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at Pacific Research Institute, a think tank that advocates free-market policies. “It was hard enough to get federal agencies moving on the national e-government initiative,” Arrison said. “When it comes to technology, the federal government often looks pretty hopeless.”
The telecom revolution is, nevertheless, propelling government toward consolidating its networks to save money. And for many agencies, the bumps in the road are just temporary obstacles.
Short-term projects succeed
“What we’re seeing is a movement to integrate disparate networks and services into a more homogeneous environment,” said John Johnson, assistant commissioner of service development and delivery at GSA. In that environment, wired and wireless networks become one network.
“There is an evolution under way where telecom and IT environments are merging,” Johnson added.
Many experts say the federal government has had little time to catch its breath since black rotary phones ruled the workplace. Today’s panoply of high-tech gadgets with telecom components includes cellular phones, handheld computers with wireless Internet connections, voice over IP, radio frequency identification technologies and tablet computers. What the next generation will bring is anybody’s guess.
“It is my sense that government has no choice but to embrace the telecom revolution,” said Bernard Skoch, an executive vice president at Suss Consulting. “When you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, you tolerate slow lines. But after about five years, people say, ‘My government should be more responsive.’ That drives government to use tools to improve services they provide.”
The public may be willing to tolerate poor services for a time, but the Defense Department is fast to embrace changes, Skoch said. DOD is interested in any technology that can bring success to its life-or-death missions.
DOD research activities, notably those conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have been responsible for major information technology advances. The civil sector is still finding its way.
Terrorism brings added motivation
The 2001 terrorist attacks inspired a sense of urgency in the federal government. Since then, it has worked hard to develop interoperable systems, alert signals and backup networks for protection in the event of a catastrophe. But those changes require time, planning and funding, and some agencies remain guarded about sharing information or resources.
“The government has built thousands of networks because everyone has to have their own,” said Roger Baker, former chief information officer at the Commerce Department who is now vice president of the federal civilian sector at General Dynamics Network Systems. “It’s hard for people to see the bigger picture. They don’t know how much money they are wasting.” At almost every agency, however, the pressure to manage the budget is now a driving force behind network consolidation.
For example, in November 2005, the Interior Department consolidated 13 wide-area networks into the Enterprise Services Network. Interior used GSA’s FTS 2001 contract to buy services, ultimately awarding a contract to MCI to build the network, which now serves 2,500 offices.
Instead of managing all routers and switches at a local level, Interior acquired managed services under the FTS 2001 contract, said Tim Quinn, Interior’s enterprise infrastructure division chief. That has shifted the management burden to the contractor and provided the agency with more uniform and efficient services, he said.
Interior recently advertised the second phase of its telecom modernization plan — an enterprise services contract for 21,000 cellular phones. “We want to negotiate best price, world-class billing and troubleshooting, the same concept as the wide-area network,” Quinn said.
Glimmers of progressive thinking exist in some corners of government, but often federal officials are forced to follow industry’s lead as the line between telecom and IT blurs.
“There are some [areas in which] government leads the way because industry is not ready to invest heavily in those things until standards can be qualified,” Quinn said. “There are a lot of other [areas in which] industry can move quickly, adopting commodity-type services. It takes the government longer because of its budget cycles for spinning out projects.”
Like Interior, the Department of Veterans Affairs is developing a single telecom network for its facilities nationwide. The agency created a telemedicine network with telecom services it procured from the FTS 2001 contract.
Through a $35 million deal with Sprint, the VA created a national backbone that provides telephone, video streaming and e-mail services. The VA expects to be a frequent user of Networx once those contracts are awarded, said Sally Wallace, associate deputy assistant secretary of IT operations at the VA.
“The VA is unique,” Wallace said. “We have the biggest hospital network. We have a diverse group of users.”
Cost is the motivator for most telecom planners in government. They know consolidation and better management will improve service and help them make the most of available money.
Justice Department officials expect the Justice Unified Telecommunications Network, now under construction, to save the department money on technology. IT budgets won’t decrease, but agencies will be able to buy more technology with those budgets, said Justice CIO Vance Hitch.
Just as building the interstate highway system took decades to complete, modernizing government telecom systems is a work in progress. Spending to keep those systems current is unavoidable, Skoch said. “It’s a matter of resource priorities,” he said. “It is a matter of trading legacy systems for 21st-century systems and processes, and that’s a measure of how you prioritize resources in government.”