HHS tries buying on the Web

Ecweb.net, developed by EC Web Technologies of McLean, Va., does all the electronic
data interchange translation, so agencies can use their EDI infrastructures. At the other
end, vendors need not invest in EDI software or work through a FACNET value-added network.


"The acquisition people like it a lot better because of the wide range of
vendors" they can reach, said Amen Hillow, head of HHS Information Technology
Services' Systems and Network Management Group. "You don't have to be EDI-capable to
do business."


Hillow called ecweb.net light years ahead of FACNET. Vendors that have been using the
commerce system since early July are pleased with it, too.


"It doesn't even compare to EDI," said Tim McLatchy, vice president of
Inroads Computer Services Inc. of Centreville, Va. "People can be held responsible
for what is sent," because data goes directly back and forth without passing through
a VAN.


"They are definitely going in the right direction," said Alex Woudstra, major
accounts sales executive for Gateway 2000 Inc. Both companies have secured HHS orders
through the commerce system.


EC Web Technologies began testing ecweb.net July 9 and expects to roll it out
governmentwide Oct. 1.


Because it uses existing EDI infrastructures to gather and distribute solicitations and
responses, ecweb.net can be a central resource for transactions, which FACNET also is
supposed to provide.


FACNET, designed as an EDI medium for agency commerce, relies on federal conventions
under the American National Standards Institute's X12 EDI transaction set.


Although the Clinton administration has set a goal of moving the federal government to
electronic commerce, users have complained that FACNET is awkward, unreliable and lacks a
comprehensive database of federal vendors.


In 1995, agencies used FACNET for less than 2 percent of about 2 million procurements
of between $2,500 and $100,000. Less than 10 percent of an estimated 1.5 million federal
vendors are EDI-capable.


Hillow said the disenchantment with FACNET has been widespread.


"It wasn't quite ready," he said. "The thing they never anticipated was
that the vendors wouldn't buy in. The vendors said, 'I'm not going to pay to be
EDI-capable when I only get one or two solicitations a month.' "


The government has since shifted its EC focus to tools such as Web catalogs. Although
such catalogs do have a user-friendly Hypertext Markup Language interface, buyers must
search separate sites for them.


EC Web Technologies began life as a subsidiary of Compusearch Software Systems Inc.,
which developed FACNET gateways for three years. That experience carried over to
ecweb.net.


The commerce system has a Mercator translation engine from TSI International Ltd. of
Wilton, Conn., to do the EDI-to-HTML translation and to translate responses and vendor
information back to EDI standards.


Participating agencies can connect with ecweb.net through any EDI gateway. Ecweb.net
maps to an agency's EDI system, and each acquisition office gets a mailbox.


Vendors connect through the Web site at http://www.ecweb.net.


"No EDI software is needed on the vendor's side," said Chris Treptow, EC
product manager for EC Web Technologies.


Vendors subscribe online by filling out a form that provides agencies with the
necessary information for doing electronic commerce. That information is transmitted with
each response from the vendor, which also is filled out online.


HHS and pilot vendors said the solicitations and responses are posted over ecweb.net in
a matter of minutes, as opposed to hours or even days on FACNET.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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