Agencies, vendors influence next generation telecom contract

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The General Services Administration says it listened and heard the concerns over the way agencies currently buy telecommunications services. So the draft request for proposals for the next generation telecommunications contract called Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), is designed to simplify the process and remove much of the pain agencies and vendors alike faced during the transition to Networx from FTS-2001.

GSA released the draft RFP on Feb. 28 detailing what came from more than two years of meetings and feedback from agencies and industry.

“We’ve had a very engaged, what we called the NS2020 working group that has helped us. I think that was 24 agencies that have been represented and working with us on looking at the requirements for this program, what their needs are across the country and around the world, what they need in terms of assistance from GSA and so the agencies have been heavily involved in helping us develop this program,” said Mary Davie, the assistant commissioner of GSA’s Integrated Technology Services office in the Federal Acquisition Service, during a telephone briefing with reporters Wednesday. “We’ve done extensive industry engagement as well with lots of conversations with agencies both in big forums and one-on-one forums about how they are providing technologies today both to government and their commercial customers, and where they see things going. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that this contract and this solicitation will reflect all of that.”

EIS comes under the Network Services 2020 umbrella program and basically it’s the major follow-on to the Networx contract. GSA says EIS will be a 15-year contract with a $50 billion ceiling.

GSA detailed four mandatory services and 36 non-mandatory services in the draft RFP.

Comments on the draft RFP are due by March 31. GSA will hold an industry day in April or May and plans to release a final RFP in July.

GSA hopes to make the awards by fall of 2016 and begin the transition in early 2017 with a completion date of no later than May 2020.

GSA recently extended the current Networx contracts for another three years until 2020.

The reason GSA went on this listening tour was the Networx contract was not well received. It took probably three or four years longer to transition to Networx from FTS-2001 than expected. GSA extended its deal to pay for transition costs several times because of the complexity of ordering, billing, inventory and the statement of work processes.

More agile, more flexible

As part of their listening tour, GSA heeded a lot of advice around those back-off functions, including simplifying the billing and ordering processes.

Davie said GSA also reduced the number of customer line item numbers (CLINS) and made the process easier for agency customers to pick the CLINS that make the most sense for them.

“We’re also changing the way that agencies can place orders and GSA’s role in that,” she said. “When we give delegation of procurement authority, agencies will be able to structure their own task orders and place the orders, and GSA doesn’t get in the middle of that to negotiate and then add specific CLINS to our contract each time. Agencies will be able to do that with GSA providing similar scope reviews and making sure what they are doing fits within the contract. But it gives them more flexibility.”

Fred Haines, the program manager for Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions in GSA’s Office of Network Services Programs, said as telecommunications has gotten more complex and more integrated with IT more generally, GSA is trying to make EIS flexible enough to let customize their telecommunication solutions within the parameters of the contract terms and conditions.

Davie added the fact agencies went through the statement of work process and more complex transition last time should make this transition easier to a certain extent. They’ve already done some of the harder things like having a network inventory.

She said the changes to EIS are attracting the attention of the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Defense Information Systems Agency is moving requirements under existing contracts to Networx and plans to seriously consider EIS. Meanwhile, ODNI is suggesting some intelligence community components such as the National Reconnaissance Office take a long look at EIS for certain needs.

Will competition come?

Still even with all of these efforts, vendors expressed some concerns about GSA’s path.

Most vendors still are digging into the draft RFP and trying to understand all the nooks and crannies of the 270 plus page statement of work and hundreds of other pages in the other sections too.

One emerging concern is whether GSA is developing EIS in a way that will allow as much competition as possible or whether only the five current Networx contract holders — AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Level 3 Communications and Sprint — are able to bid.

Davie and Haines say they want as many bidders as possible because competition drives down prices and gets the government better value.

Davie said GSA has heard similar concern too, but the need for this contract is clear to GSA and to the agencies.

“One of the things we’ve heard from the agencies on specifically these kinds of services is they are so complex, it takes a lot of work to define the requirement, negotiate with the providers and because we are able to aggregate so many agencies using this contract, we get huge price discounts,” Davie said. “They also know we have relationships with these companies and can support the agencies better than a lot of times then going off on their own for some of these large complex data and networks and things like that.”

She said GSA also takes on the management and administration of the contract throughout the buying process into transition and then to operations.

Haines said despite those concerns of industry GSA is looking and expecting to more competition at both the prime and subcontract levels with the changes from Networx to the draft RFP for EIS.

There also is some concern in industry that EIS is trying to do too much because it includes more than just telecommunications and as telecommunications morphs into voice-over-IP and other as-a-service technologies in the cloud.

Haines said the changing nature of telecommunications and technologies more broadly is part of the reason why GSA wants a new model for EIS that includes more than just a tech refresh clause.

“This has on-ramp capabilities, which is a first for large GSA telecom contracts. We haven’t done that in the past,” he said. “So 3, 5, 7 years from now, somebody who didn’t bid it originally, didn’t give us a proposal this summer or later down the road, but due to changes in their business, due to acquisitions or mergers and now want to get into the contract, there are provisions in EIS to on-ramp new vendors into the contract as well.”

Haines said the reason why GSA is going through this draft RFP process and having an industry day is to hear from vendors and other experts, and improve upon the EIS procurement so it does meet everyone’s needs as much as possible.

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