Vendors Await $50B ‘Tsunami’ of US Telecom Contracts

The U.S. government has modernized telecom and supporting information technology twice within the last 20 years — but not without controversy, delays and costly project management. A third modernization currently is under way, under the direction of the federal General Services Administration. The potential value of contracts issued to vendors under the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions program is US$50 billion over 15 years.

In light of past modernizations, oversight agencies have been watching the EIS program carefully. GSA’s own Inspector General last month reported that the agency had failed to meet an important contracting requirement associated with the EIS. The IG audit followed a General Accountability Office report that assessed how well GSA was implementing lessons learned from past programs.

Balancing Act

It is clear from these reports that GSA has been trying to balance improved project and contract administration with assisting agencies to modernize as quickly as possible. GSA last summer selected 10 contractors to participate in the program: AT&T, BT Federal, Century Link, Core Technologies, Granite Telecommunications, Harris, Level-3, MetTel, MicroTechnologies and Verizon.

It appears that what GSA referred to as a potential “tsunami” of separate task order contracts under the huge EIS program likely won’t be flowing with any regularity until late in 2018, more than a year after vendor selection. Between now and then GSA and vendors will be absorbed in highly technical transition efforts.

The EIS program is a government-wide contract vehicle that will provide federal agencies with mission-critical telecommunications, infrastructure and related IT services, said GSA. The program will succeed the existing Networx system.

Among components of the program are voice and data transmission, wireless and mobile services, Ethernet capabilities, associated cloud technology and IT support.Lessons Learned in Management and ContractingGSA has been marshaling various resources to implement EIS, including engagement of a contractor to help government agencies with the transition. However, GSA failed to conclude required intergovernment agreements between itself and various federal agencies for the contractor’s services.

Support services for nearly $9 million were obtained, even though the agreements had not been concluded, according to GSA’s Inspector General. GSA skipped the agreement step in order to meet program deadlines.

The agreements “should clearly establish the scope of work,” as well as financial terms and other aspects of contract administration, according to the IG. Absent the agreements, the government could be “vulnerable to significant risks” including potential contract disputes.

In response, GSA said the agreements would be in place by the end of last month.

“Part of GSA’s reasoning for providing this help without the required agreements was to get agencies the assistance they promised faster than if they had waited for the agreements to be finalized,” said Carol Harris, director for information technology acquisition management at GAO.

“From that perspective, the lack of agreements shouldn’t affect the timeline. If, however, a lack of oversight leads to ineffective contractor support, it could negatively affect agencies’ preparations, which could in turn delay their transitions,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

The impact of the delay likely will be minimal, suggested Diana Gowen, senior vice president for federal programs at MetTel.

“Although the GSA team had not secured their interagency agreements, they have been working with their agencies to prepare task order competitions to meet the transition, so we don’t foresee negative consequences,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

A broader examination of GSA’s performance in managing telecom modernizations was conducted by GAO’s Harris and other agency staff.

The 1998 transition resulted in $79 million of lost savings, while the 2007 telecom upgrade was delayed by 33 months with lost savings of $329 million, GAO reported last year.

GAO compiled a list of 35 lessons learned from those projects and concluded that it had addressed only about half of them in developing guidance for the current EIS project.

GSA “did not address all of its lessons in its guidance and several of the lessons were not communicated comprehensively,” the reports states. “As a result, GSA made it more difficult for agencies to take advantage of the lessons.

GAO came up with a total of 25 recommendations spread among GSA and the five agencies it studied in its report.

Better Guidance for Agencies

To overcome past deficiencies, GSA has established comprehensive guidance for federal agencies, including an initiative to consult with private sector providers that began as early as 2014.

GSA has issued primers on the goals of the Network Solutions 2020 program of which EIS is a component, as well as technical requirement documents. In addition, the agency has set up an EIS website portal, training programs, and conferences for federal agencies and providers.

Those efforts appear to be satisfactory to vendors.

“We’ve had multiple deep dive sessions to provide information on our capabilities, experiences and ideas to ensure the GSA team can provide guidance to all of its agencies on EIS suppliers,” MetTel’s Gowen said.

GSA recently met with vendors for program reviews and to share efforts to incentivize agencies to pursue fair opportunities under EIS, noted Century Link.

“GSA also scheduled an executive meet and greet with all EIS vendors in mid-February,” Century Link said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Linda Johnson.

In turn, vendors have set up dedicated EIS channels, including website portals for use by government agencies. Many of the vendors have EIS representatives in the Washington, D.C., region. In fact, New York based MetTel hired Gowen last fall and specifically assigned her to its Washington office to lead the company’s federal and EIS efforts.

Even with appropriate communication between GSA and vendors, the launching of actual contracts will be a time-consuming process.

Test Challenges Remain

Each vendor must meet a rigorous GSA Business Support System test. Compliance deadlines fall between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, varying by vendor.

By the end of last year, only four contractors had reported any progress toward BSS compliance, and even that was minimal. AT&T was at 6 percent; MetTel at 3.5 percent; Level-3 at 1.5 percent and Century Link at just 0.5 percent. Thus, the BSS requirement could delay the issuance of contracts until late this year.

“We’ve received many incoming requests for information on our services and capabilities. GSA is working with agencies to transition from Networx to EIS. However, task orders can’t be acted upon until the EIS vendors have completed BSS testing and FISMA moderate assessments,” said Gowen.

FISMA is a federal law covering security requirements.

While GAO has not updated last year’s assessment of its EIS transition, “considering the tight timeframes in GSA’s remaining transition schedule and the level of preparedness we found in the agencies we evaluated, it will take sustained effort and attention from GSA and the agencies to complete the transition on time,” Harris observed.

Reflecting a commitment to such an effort, GSA has been “reviewing the solicitations we have received thus far, and we expect to continue receiving more over the next few months,” said Amando Gavino, director of telecom services at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

The EIS program “provides a great opportunity to not only modernize federal networks across government, but to also prepare for purchase and implementation” of future IT and telecom advances and innovations,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Agencies have been researching their networking infrastructure objectives for some time,” Gavino said, “and are now beginning to issue final requirements documents for EIS.”

John K. Higgins

John K. Higgins has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2009. His main areas of focus are U.S. government technology issues such as IT contracting, cybersecurity, privacy, cloud technology, big data and e-commerce regulation. As a freelance journalist and career business writer, he has written for numerous publications, includingThe Corps Report and Business Week.Email John.

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