Neal Fox | GSA Networx: Can you hear me now?

IT Contracting

Neal Fox

Networx Universal, the next-generation telecommunications and networking contract from GSA, has finally been awarded. The awards were made just weeks shy of the second anniversary of the request for proposals and 15 months after receipt of proposals ' not exactly lightning speed.

Those who have watched Networx unfold have seen what procurements looked like before acquisition reform and what happens when the government tries to control every detail, issues overly complicated RFPs, creates the need for a cumbersome modification process and takes forever to award the contract.

But Networx is finally ready to provide telecom and networking solutions to the government. Or is it?

GSA officials made the baffling announcement earlier this year (GCN.com/750) that Networx would not be open for ordering until GSA first certifies vendor processes, including billing, inventory and security. The test schedule was said to be three to five months after contract award. Here we go again. Sounds like the pre-reform 1970s again, bad pants and all.

But what about Networx Enterprise, which is scheduled to be awarded in May?

Enterprise was supposed to do what Universal could not, such as bring integrators and small businesses into the process. But none of those vendors bid. In fact, the bidders on Enterprise are the same four Universal vendors bidders plus two others. And the Enterprise scope is basically a subset of Universal. So the utility of Enterprise is a big question mark.

Unless Enterprise is abandoned, GSA will end up with two contracts having virtually the same large telecom vendors. And because both Networx contracts will have significant minimum guaranteed sales for the vendors, that duplication could become a liability issue for GSA. So the added value of Enterprise would be'what?
And how about those fees? For many years now, GSA has charged agencies a 7 percent fee to use its telecom contracts. Treasury worked out a sweet deal , with significantly reduced fees and self-service use of Networx to further reduce fees.

But GSA intends to go on charging the other agencies 7 percent. Remember that the GSA schedule fees are about one-tenth of that, and other GSA assisted acquisition fees are generally 3 percent or less, depending on the level of services. We'll see whether the Treasury deal was a breach in the GSA telecom fee levee.

The losing vendor, Sprint, has said they will not protest the Universal decision. This was a generous gift to GSA, which took the hazardous approach of changing the solicitation numerous times after they had already read the proposals. It will be interesting to see what happens if Sprint does not receive an Enterprise award.

Interestingly, having the major telecom providers split between the two different Networx contracts could complicate the decision for agencies regarding which contract to use. Still, a spot on Enterprise would be a small consolation prize.

In this converging world where telecom is becoming just another component of information technology, how long will a separate telecom contract like Networx be useful? Networx's last-century approach ' its failure to embrace telecom convergence into IT and GSA's insistence on large fees 'makes one wonder how long it will take before customers make their voices heard on these issues and start asking: Can you hear me now?

Neal Fox is the former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA and manages Neal Fox Consulting (nealfoxconsulting. com). He can be reached at nfox@usa.com.

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