Old lion has advice for new cats at FTS

As FTS commissioner, Woods negotiated
multibillion-dollar contracts for federal long-distance and local telephone services from
1994 to 1997. Under his leadership, FTS offered global voice, data and video
communications for both local and long-distance government telecom users, and such
advanced telecom products and services as federal calling cards, wireless equipment and
services, network applications, acquisitions services for IT and telecom systems, risk
analysis and security support.


He began his government career as an engineering
intern in the Navy. For the next 15 years he worked in a variety of jobs at the Federal
Aviation Administration. His FAA years culminated in three years at the helm of the
agency’s IRM program from 1984 to 1987.


From 1987 to 1991, Woods was director of the Transportation
Department’s IRM department. From there, he moved to the Veterans Affairs Department,
where he was deputy assistant secretary for IRM from 1991 until 1994.


He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering
from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a master’s in public administration from Harvard
University and a master’s in administration from George Washington University.


The General Services Administration is on the brink of
awarding FTS 2001 contracts, and agencies are preparing for changes in service. Woods,
with his years working on FTS 2000 and a nearly 30-year government career, is in a unique
position to comment on the forthcoming FTS 2001.


GCN associate editor Jonathan Ewing interviewed Woods by
telephone from his office in McLean, Va.


What’s more



Age: 52
Family: Wife, Betsy; children, Mary Beth Jones, 29, and Dennis, 27
Car: Mercedes C280
Personal hero: John Glenn
His worst job: Coal miner
His best job: President of Federal Sources Inc.
Dream job: Second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles
Motto: “Forgive and remember.’’




GCN: How did the
Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 change the climate of putting together procurements
such as FTS 2000 and FTS 2001?


WOODS: The effect of the reform act of 1996
on the telecommunications industry was market liberalization—an attempt to allow a
more free and open business environment with lots of healthy competition between different
service providers. We all knew that finally there would be an end to the old highly
regulated environment.


But at the same time, we knew that you couldn’t just go from a regulated
environment to a free-market environment overnight and maintain the best telecom system in
the world.


We who were working in the public sector at the time saw an opportunity to acquire a
cheaper, more efficient telecommunications service by making a deal with one of the
service providers. The government, which had been using its own service, called FTS until
1988, then began to use commercial providers such as AT&T Corp. and Sprint Corp.


Through these two providers competing for our business, we were able to get a pretty
good price: from about 38 cents per minute until 1988, down to about 5 cents a minute
through the commercial providers.


So when we saw the reform act of 1996, we naturally thought it was great. The increased
competition, we believed, would create more market competition and pressure to come up
with innovative technology solutions in telecommunications.


GCN: What is the best way to
prepare for the transition to FTS 2001? Some predict it will be a difficult process.


WOODS: When you talk to the legislators on Capitol Hill, they will say
the transition should be easy. They might say, “You’ve got millions of
dollars in the war chest, so you should be able to take care of this transition with no
problem.”


But in reality it’s quite complicated, and it takes considerable coordination
between government and the private sector.


When preparing for this kind of transition, you should make sure that your new service
provider understands the particular telecommunications needs of your agency so that they
can provide quality service to you.


GCN: What should be in an
agency’s transition plan?


WOODS: You have to make sure that the past service supplier hands over
a detailed inventory of units, components and parts and their locations. This is essential
for a successful switch from one provider to the next.


You must also ensure that there are very clear lines of communication open between
yourself and the current and future service providers so that when problems arise, a
solution can be arrived at by talking to all the necessary players.


You have to know who will be responsible for scheduling the transition. You must have a
date to make sure the switch is done in a synchronized way so the user never sees the
difference.


What about billing? The new service provider needs to know every user and every
department and how their charges are to be paid. There have been cases in the past
when personnel had their names misspelled on calling cards or were even repeatedly
incorrectly billed, and none of that should happen. If you don’t do it right, you end
up with service outages and major inconveniences.


One last point that is probably worth looking into is whether the new provider has any
Y2K problems through the agency-owned infrastructure or the provider’s
infrastructure. In the long run, the transition is worth doing because lots of money
can be saved. But don’t ever think it’s a piece of cake.


GCN: What does the government
want in the FTS 2001 contracts that they did not get last time? Also, what will this new
deal mean in terms of a telecommunications big picture for government, and how will it
improve the way agencies do business?


WOODS: What agencies would like to see is more end-to-end service,
which is to say they would like a single provider giving local and long-distance as well
as voice data and cards service. They want one-stop shopping, and they would also like to
see a shorter turnaround time in the actual project implementation.


Because, as I’m sure you remember, the transition for an agency like the Treasury
Department was quite difficult, and almost nothing went according to plan.


In terms of the big picture, I think that you will begin to see services with a lot of
flexibility for the kinds of technology that will soon be offered.


But I think it would be wrong to assume that the new technology will come without any
problems. Those will have to be worked out over months or years.


So the new technology will still have kinks, and it will take stronger and more able
managers to learn how to use it.


Another major risk is buying the pure technology solution. Everyone wants to buy it,
but people take awhile to break it down to real world applications: How can we use this
new tool at our agency? How long will it take us to learn how to use it? How much time
will it save, and what about the lost time we will inevitably spend trying to come up to
speed?


The bottom line here is don’t expect the new technology to be smooth immediately.
And perhaps you shouldn’t think, either, that it will be as reliable as the old black
telephone.


But government will have to choose its poisons and decide how far out on the technology
curve they’re willing to go. And then they will have to decide how to manage their
new tools.


GCN: What has led to the delay
in choosing vendors and services for FTS 2001?


WOODS: The government has been slow to
commit because it is in no great hurry to set up terms for the next FTS 2001 contracts.


GSA officials cannot see the advantage of setting up guidelines or terms until they
understand exactly what it is that they need from the vendors.


One thing for certain that they are after is a smooth transition and a guarantee that
the provider will be able to meet the details of the agencies’ needs.


The government also wants to do things inexpensively and efficiently. But government
should be a little worried about letting the delay go on for too long.


Already some agencies have entered into a continuity of service agreement with [their
FTS 2000] vendor because the initial contract expired and they were forced to negotiate an
extension of service, but many agencies are finding that it is not such a wise move in the
long run.


GCN: Why?


WOODS: The net effect of such agreements is
that government will have a series of sole-source contracts, which no other vendors have
bid on.


Agencies simply went to their FTS 2000 vendor and said they would like to extend for
another year, and they negotiated a new price.


You have to believe that you are not only not getting the best price, but you are
probably not even getting the most innovative solution.  

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