Correction: This article was updated on June 12 to reflect the full title of a General Services Administration official who administers telecommunications and network acquisition programs.
About a third of federal agencies including the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have another 12 months to transition to a long-delayed $50 billion telecommunications contract, delaying their transition to modern systems.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security were given until 2026 to complete their transitions, in part because of hardships they cited related the pandemic.
The General Services Administration has been trying to bring agencies onto the 15-year contract vehicle for several years. It’s been a complex, and at times, slow process. It’s a huge contract involving 32 types of services such as high-speed internet and telephones, utilizing millions of data circuits and nine vendors.
The transition was further disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing supply chain shortages. Agencies made the case for more time as the May 31 deadline neared, and 82 agencies have so-called continuity-of-service agreements.
The predecessor contract vehicle, Networx, has been in place for a decade and was extended twice. Now, as federal agencies transition to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contract at different speeds, government watchdogs have warned that delays could lead to cost overruns and service inefficiencies for agencies who are hampered by the limited extensions.
Federal agencies were originally told to fully transition their services by September 2022. As of March of this year, 123 of 222 agencies and tribal governments had fully completed the move.
GSA stopped accepting contract modifications to the old contracts, and its inspector general warned that any prolonged use of legacy systems “erodes potential cost savings from EIS.”
The last two times the government underwent this large of a IT overhaul, cost overruns in the hundreds of millions were the result of significant delays. The transition to Networx took 33 months longer than expected, and most agencies experienced delays that led to an increase of $66.4 million to GSA and a loss of $329 million in projected savings.
One problem during that period was agencies were continuing to order services from the predecessor well after the same offerings were available on the new contract, according to a Government Accountability Office report from 2020.
“Just as we were getting our [authorities to operate], just as we’re ready to hit the ground running, just as the government’s ready, boom, we get hit with COVID,” said Don Parente, vice president of public sector sales at MetTel, one of the EIS contractors. “You have [requests for proposals] that are out there, and now all of a sudden, your source selection committee can’t be in the same office.”
“Agencies who were truly transforming, they got hit hardest with these deadlines because we couldn’t get to the equipment,” said Zain Ahmed, senior vice president of Lumen public sector, another provider on the contract. “They didn’t have access to it. So how do we transform while we’re waiting for a month, a year, almost a year-and-a-half to wait for the equipment to show up?”
At the time, Laura Stanton, assistant commissioner of the Office of IT Category at GSA, wrote in a blog post that extensions are “not without risks,” and contractors may not agree to them.
“We continue to communicate regularly with agencies to emphasize the importance of completing their transitions or implementing alternate plans to prevent a gap in service from impacting the agency’s ability to operate and fulfill its mission,” said Jake Marcellus, executive director of the Office of Enterprise Technology Solutions, which administers GSA’s global telecommunications and network acquisition programs, including EIS.” “Throughout, GSA continues to focus on moving the transition forward and talking to agencies to ensure they’re aware of the risks and costs of inaction, as well as the opportunity this transition presents to modernize.”
Another complication surrounding the program is a Federal Communication Commission directive from 2018 that put more power in the hands of telecomm providers to decide whether to retire landline copper lines and replace legacy services like the traditional Plain Old Telephone Service.
“That’s also creating a little bit of turmoil because you’re seeing carriers raise the price in some areas and shut down services in others,” Parente said. “In a lot of ways, what was contemplated six years ago when EIS was first awarded, some of those services are going away very quickly. So now, in the middle of an award, a procurement, a transition, we’re all stopping and saying, ‘wait a minute, does it make sense to move those POTS lines? Or should we do something new?‘”
The new contract includes voice-over-internet services as an alternative to the hardwired model of phone lines that have been in use since the 1880s.
So far in this transition, agencies have cited the complexity of requirements, partial government shutdown in 2019, lack of staff and inconsistent transition strategies as major contributors of delays, per GAO’s report. It’s up to agencies to determine the right personnel to carry out the transition and develop a way to pay for it.
Mark Cameron, vice president of federal technology at Granite Telecommunications, told Federal Times in a statement that it has performed “a large lift” with federal customers as they transition away from outdated predecessor contracts to the modern EIS.
In a December hearing before the House oversight committee, Carol Harris, director of IT and cybersecurity at GAO, said that continuity-of-service agreements are not a panacea.
“Agencies need to act with tremendous urgency to move the bar here and get off those legacy contracts as quickly as possible,” she said at the time. “We just don’t want to have further delay because that’s going to cause cost overruns.”
Harris did not respond to requests from Federal Times for further comment.
The new contract is expected to serve agencies until 2032.
The other six contractors declined or did not respond to requests for interviews sent by Federal Times by the time of publication. There are six incumbents who were awarded an EIS contract: three Networx contractors (AT&T, Verizon and Lumen) and three regional local service agreement providers (Core Technologies, Granite Telecommunications and MetTel).
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.