FTS 2001 billing creates havoc for USDA cutover

FTS 2001 billing creates havoc for USDA cutover

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

Moving the Agriculture Department to a new FTS 2001 long-distance provider is 'probably one of the most difficult problems I've dealt with in my life,' said Gordon Durflinger, USDA's telecommunications transition manager.

Billing errors are his chief headache.

USDA began its switch from FTS 2000 provider AT&T Corp. to FTS 2001 provider WorldCom Inc. last summer. December will bring an end to bridge service contracts with AT&T and Sprint Corp. under the General Services Administration's old FTS 2000 contract. Many other agencies are also in the throes of transition.

Who's call

Chief among the problems USDA has encountered is sorting bills into specific accounts. In the Washington area, Durflinger said, some lines are being billed for long-distance at commercial rates of more than 40 cents a minute instead of the correct FTS 2001 rate of 6 cents or 7 cents a minute.

'I thought AT&T had their problems,' Durflinger said, 'and they did.' But doing business with a company that has no legacy of administering a governmentwide telecom contract is hard, he said.

'These are situations that are endemic to transition,' said Frank Lalley, assistant commissioner for service delivery at GSA's Federal Technology Service. 'Billing was the most sensitive issue for FTS 2001. We have processes in place to fix things.'

As USDA passes the two-thirds mark on its way to full WorldCom service, 'the problems are numerous, but we have been making progress,' Durflinger said. 'We can now read the various bills from WorldCom, load them and validate them.'

Rick Slifer, WorldCom's FTS 2001 program manager, said, 'We have regular meetings to discuss these kinds of things. When you set up something as complex as USDA, it takes a lot of work to get things right.'

Billing troubles date back several years to when FTS 2001 requirements were being drafted. GSA based the program as far as possible on commercial services and practices, and the Interagency Management Council, which Lalley headed at the time, decided to use commercial billing systems rather than require bidders to develop special government billing. Commercial billing systems have eight levels of hierarchy for organizational units, which is enough for most agencies.

'We decided all of government shouldn't pay for a unique billing system used by only a few,' Lalley said. 'If there are agencies that need more, we need to identify them and address their needs.'

WorldCom is in compliance with its contract requirements for hierarchical billing, Slifer said. GSA has a program to establish the hierarchies and assign the codes needed by some agencies, and WorldCom has worked with USDA and GSA to establish the levels the department needs, he said.

But, Durflinger said, 'the process of getting the hierarchies set up for USDA and getting them tied to the accounts has been long and arduous.'

Durflinger said bills are now being corrected.

Slifer said Agriculture appears satisfied with current performance. 'We haven't heard anything back from their management that this is still a problem,' he said.

The effects linger, however. Some USDA agencies are moving into the final quarter of the federal fiscal year with no idea of what they have spent on telecom, said E. Linda Rafats, telecom manager for the Agricultural Marketing Service.

'We have not seen any of the actual costs for our telephone systems so far,' Rafats said.

Some costs they have seen are out of line with what was expected, she said. The service's June bill from Bell Atlantic Corp., the local-service provider under the Washington Interagency Telecommunications Service contract, contained charges for WorldCom long-distance service at 43 cents a minute, Rafats said.

She blamed the problem on a breakdown of communications between local and long-distance providers. Under telecom deregulation, the two companies, sometimes in competition, must cooperate to provide long-distance service on lines owned by the local carrier.

'I don't think anybody at the local level is ready to deal with this,' Rafats said.

The local carrier plays a critical role in establishing long-distance service.

'The person who controls the local switch controls what happens when the user picks up the phone and dials a long-distance number,' Slifer said.

Lalley said agencies set up long-distance service by placing an order through the local carrier, which notifies the long-distance carrier so that the two can work together to establish the service.

'Synchronization is required,' he said. 'If they don't sync, the default is to switch the customer to commercial service.'

In the WITS case cited by Rafats, 'some of the destination numbers were not in the database' maintained by Bell Atlantic, Slifer said. He said WorldCom has worked with Bell Atlantic and GSA to ensure that the database is updated and maintained.

Give it time

Durflinger said USDA is being credited for the overcharges, but clearing them up takes time. Billing typically lags by 60 days, so a January bill is not seen until March, Lalley said. If it is corrected in April, erroneous bills might still arrive for February and March.

Durflinger's advice to agencies transferring phone service is to 'plan, plan, plan. Before you start your transition, get into place all of the billing structures needed to support it,' he said. 'We had no idea how many issues there would be.'

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