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New contract, policies speed adoption of mobile devices

Jun. 3, 2013 - 04:56PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
A view of and Apple iPhone displaying th
Many agencies see the cost of supplying mobile devices as a worthwhile investment to boost the productivity of teleworkers. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

If you use your smartphone for work, your agency may be willing to buy a service plan for your personal device — under a new General Services Administration contract awarded last month.

The new contract, aimed at supporting the government’s growing mobile workforce, is expected to help agencies buy mobile wireless services faster and cheaper.

GSA awarded the contract to four of the nation’s top wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. The goal is to centralize spending and reduce the thousands of wireless agreements and plans across bureaus and program offices. GSA expects the five-year contract will save the government $300 million when agencies buy in bulk with deeper discounts.

Some of the government’s biggest mobile purchasers, including GSA and the Homeland Security, Justice, Agriculture, Interior and Treasury departments, are expected to drive their purchasing through the new Wireless Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative contract, said GSA spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. The Defense and Commerce departments also have expressed interest in using the contract, which GSA estimates will facilitate $1.6 billion in spending.

As agencies’ budgets shrink under the sequester cuts, many see the cost of supplying mobile devices as a worthwhile investment to boost the productivity of teleworkers and other mobile employees.

The contract allows agencies to buy service plans for employees’ personal devices that are used for work, which could provide steam for agencies looking to offer bring-your-own-device programs. The challenge for some agencies has been finding a way to reimburse or contribute toward employees’ wireless bills, if they are using their devices for work.

The new contract also offers agencies ways to reduce their mobile spending. Agencies can pool their unused minutes and data with a specific carrier and share those minutes agencywide instead of paying overage fees.

Smartphones, cellphones and broadband data devices are bundled with the service plans at no additional charge, and carriers can quickly add newer devices without having to modify the contract, GSA’s Mary Davie said in a recent blog post. Davie said vendors will upgrade devices every 20 months at no cost to the government, which may not be soon enough for some federal employees.

Agencies are expected to spend about $1.3 billion on wireless services and mobile devices this year, up slightly from $1.2 billion reported last year, according to government data. At last count, the government had 1.5 million mobile devices. Mobile spending is expected to increase as agencies seek newer capabilities available on smartphones and tablets, including iPhone and Android devices, and as they make more federal services accessible to citizens and employees via mobile apps.

“If you go back to how this all got started, mobile technology was not a big part of the way the government served citizens or citizens carried on business” with the government, said Jeff Mohan, head of GSA programs for AT&T Government Solutions. Today, “it is a hotly contested market, and the consumer generally benefits. We are forced to provide better cost structures.”

The wireless contract was slated to be released last November, but it was delayed by a protest Verizon filed a year ago with the Government Accountability Office. The contract’s delay forced some agencies to award their own contracts for mobile and wireless services or to modify the terms of existing contracts, at a time when the administration is trying to rein in duplicative wireless services contracts.

“Until now, wireless purchasing has been fragmented among multiple buying channels, resulting in individual bureaus, departments and operating divisions across the government managing more than 4,000 wireless agreements and 800 wireless plans from various carriers,” according to GSA.

In its Digital Strategy, the administration cited one instance where three separate federal agencies in Atlanta were paying different monthly service plan rates for unlimited data on the same device.

“I think prior to GSA going through its exercise, you could find as many different ways of buying wireless as there are components or locations of agencies,” said Keith Martin, director of federal programs for Sprint.

Under the contract, vendors are required to promote use of the contract to existing customers, at least match discounted prices on existing federal contracts and report to agencies, including GSA, on wireless usage trends and suggest ways agencies can buy services more efficiently.

For agencies that opt to redirect their mobile business through GSA’s contract, terminating their existing agreements shouldn’t be a major issue because agencies typically negotiate contracts with no penalty for early termination, said Jin Kang, president and CEO of iSYS LLC, a telecommunications expense management services company.

Kang’s company helps agencies like DHS’ Customs and Board Protection and Transportation Security Administration ensure users have a plan or service appropriate for their wireless usage, rather than agencies relying solely on wireless carriers to advise them.

Shifting from wired to wireless technologies is not as simple as buying a cellphone, said Sprint’s Martin. Agencies have to consider security and how to manage increased mobile traffic over their networks. GSA’s wireless contract is intended to “have all those sorts of elements on a single contract.”

Todd Loccisano, an executive director with Verizon Enterprise Solutions, said “consistency in offerings” is the key to making the contract work. “The government has had pooling options for a number of years, but this BPA [blanket purchase agreement] offers consistent voice and data plan options. Agencies can procure services in a more limited but beneficial manner.”

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