GSA softens line on looming EIS due date

Think of the September deadline for agencies to award contracts under the General Services Administration's $50-billion telecommunications contract as a "yellow light," said GSA's telecom services director.

GSA Headquarters (Photo by Rena Schild/Shutterstock)

The General Services Administration is taking a more pragmatic view of its upcoming deadline for agencies to issue solicitations under its 15-year, $50-billion next-generation telecommunications contract.

The deadline for agencies to award contracts under the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) contract is Sept. 30. Only three agencies, so far, have awarded contracts -- the Department of Justice, NASA and the Railroad Retirement Board.

Some agencies, according to Allen Hill, director of the Office of Telecommunications Services in GSA's Federal Acquisition Services, won't make that deadline, but it's not a huge stumbling block.

"Even though September passes," he said in remarks at an ACT-IAC Aug. 21 event to discuss the massive contract, "it's more of a yellow light" that shows the agency "needs to step it up."

In some of his first public forum remarks on the contract, Hill, who has been on the job since last December, said modernization shouldn't come at the expense of an agency's mission. The initial September deadline isn't a line in the sand for and EIS contract award, according to Hill. Although agencies may not have awarded by then, it doesn't necessarily mean they're falling behind in transitioning to the vehicle.

The looser deadline, however, won't affect GSA's other EIS transition target dates, he said.

Those deadlines include: March 31, 2020, when GSA will limit extending agency contracts on existing telecom contracts for agencies that haven't awarded an EIS contract; March 2022 when agencies are required to have 90% of their telecom inventory moved to EIS; and May 31, 2023, when GSA's set of current telecom contracts expire.

"It's extremely important to be deliberate in the beginning" as agencies develop their initial EIS contracts, because they have to meet basic needs for their respective missions, he said.  That initial move to "keep the lights on" can be mistaken for inaction on modernizing, according to Hill. "It's easy for outsiders to look at things and say, 'Why isn't it going faster?'" he said.

"We have a responsibility to the American public to not only modernize but not to break the services we provide to the public," Hill said. "In doing so, CIOs have a great deal of responsibility to ensure the public that [agencies] are able to continue to support them as we modernize."

The shift is subtle, but important. Over the last year or so, the Office of Management and Budget has pushed the telecom contract as a platform for agencies modernize their IT operations.

Some vendors have complained the September deadline is not realistic, given only three agencies have awarded contracts with only a few weeks to go until Sept. 30. They have also said they are not seeing much innovative modernization in the solicitations, with most solicitations they have seen being "like-for-like" moves where agencies simply transfer current network inventory over from old contracts.

Hill addressed both issues in the ACT-IAC question and answer session on the contract.

Even though only three agencies have awarded contracts, EIS is "picking up steam" like a locomotive, said Hill. GSA has reviewed and approved 54 "scope reviews" of agency solicitations, he said, with the next couple of months set to be "exciting" as agencies award contracts.

Hill pushed back on the idea that they're not moving fast enough. "We're being more deliberate to ensure the mission isn't broken," he said.

Agencies, said Hill, have been carefully trying to inject some kind of modernization into their solicitations, but it might not be the wholesale IT overhaul some have expected.

He acknowledged that initially some agencies went for like-for-like transition approaches that only preserved what they had. That is changing, according to Hill.

"We're not seeing like-for-like" in reviews of solicitations, he said, noting one agency recently pulled an initial solicitation back for an overhaul that added modernization. He didn't name the agency.

The limited number of bids for the largest EIS award so far, AT&T's $1 billion contract with the Justice Department, also has some vendors and observers concerned that some agencies are looking to their incumbent carriers almost exclusively to shift to EIS. The contract had two bidders.

That limited bidding, said Hill, "should concern anybody." However, GSA can't mandate vendors to bid on contracts. The cost/benefit calculus is up to vendors to perform. "Some vendors may decide not to bid, particularly smaller vendors," he said.

It is also in the hands of agencies to decide which solutions best suit them, he said, and the pace of their modernization efforts.

Ultimately, Hill said it is up to agencies to determine their comfort level in modernizing their mission-critical systems, as well as to vendors to help them do so, particularly when it comes to moving to software-defined network technology.

SDN, he said, is a key part of other modernization efforts, including the shift to the cloud. However, not all agencies have the expertise on staff to handle SDN.