What AT&T's $350M Networx award means to government telecom

AT&T will build a managed IP network architecture for the Agriculture Department that will let the agency extend shared services across a new, unified infrastructure.

The Agriculture Department settled on a new provider to help implement its transition from the General Services Administration’s soon-to-expire FTS2001 contract to Networx. Under a $350 million, seven-year Networx Universal contract, AT&T Government Solutions will provide the USDA with IP virtual private network and managed security services.

The award is a major step toward transitioning a Cabinet-level agency off GSA’s older, generally more expensive, governmentwide telecommunications contract, AT&T said.

“Of course, this one has been on the drawing board a long time,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, “but it is USDA’s largest award and a significant one for Networx.”

Agencies have been under increasing pressure from multiple sources, including senior management of the agencies, GSA and Congress, to make the latest transition deadline of June 2011.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee met May 20 and excoriated agencies for their failure to meet earlier deadlines. “We are now in the ridiculous position of being three years into a 10-year contract that we haven’t even implemented,” said the committee's chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). GSA estimates that failure is costing $22.4 million each month. “By that estimate, we may lose between $300 million and half a billion dollars in unrealized cost savings by next year,” he added.

However, as with the long-in-the-works USDA award, other significant awards are likely in coming months. As slow as the transition has been, “I think we’re seeing an acceleration of awards and subsequent implementations,” said Jeff Mohan, executive director of AT&T’s Networx program office.

Under the one-year (with six one-year options) task order, AT&T will complete a USDA-wide, managed IP network architecture that will let the agency extend shared services across a new, unified infrastructure.

The award is not only large, Suss said, but also “complex, not only because there are so many bureaus, but because its mission is so varied.”

Under the contract, AT&T will provide data services to 29 USDA agencies and more than 5,000 geographically widely dispersed locations. “For example, there’s a USDA extension agent in every county in the United States,” Mohan said.

Additionally, those offices are far from uniform in size, he said. Those in a heavily agricultural area will be “substantial” in size, he said, while the Manhattan [New York] office might have only few people.

The agency’s widely varied business adds another facet, Mohan said. “USDA does a lot of work in food inspection, research and development, food safety, scientific research, ensuring the safety of our food supply, and that’s just some of what they do.”

With such varied businesses comes varied processes and needs, he said. “Depending on the office, there may be huge data transfer or heavy citizen interaction or e-mail or security, and we have to have the infrastructure in place to handle that.”

A Significant Advance

When GSA developed the Networx acquisition, it was with an eye toward allowing agencies not only to transition existing services but to transform them and incorporate new technologies, said Karl Krumbholz, GSA's director of network services programs. Little of that has been seen.

The USDA award would seem to continue that trend; virtual private networks are hardly news. But the new state-of-the-art Multiprotocol Label Switching-enabled network will be a significant advance for USDA, Mohan said.

“The migration to a VPN architecture for USDA is not only a significant evolution of their network but an example of how the agency has been able to successfully execute its network vision,” Mohan said.

The initiative will let the agency broaden its use of shared services and update agency network capabilities. “USDA will use the Networx program to transform our operations through new technologies so we can provide our customers with more advanced network services while also meeting the needs of our citizens,” said Christopher Smith, the agency’s CIO.

With the work planned under the award, USDA also gives a nod to federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra’s request that agencies consider cloud computing in their plans for new information technology implementations.

“I could make a good argument that a lot of the services we’ll be providing USDA are cloud,” Mohan said. Among the security services AT&T will be providing will be intrusion detection and prevention to stop intruders before they get to USDA’s networks, he said. “We handle the risk prevention and mitigation in the same way.” And it’s all handled by the carrier, with no added infrastructure at the agency, he added.

“With the managed firewall service, there is a device sitting at the agency,” he said, “but we’re doing the vulnerability scanning, looking at users to see if they’re vulnerable to cyberattack.”

AT&T Chief Security Officer Ed Amoroso takes the cloud characterization further. “AT&T's cloud-based approach, coupled with our managed security services, provides USDA with a highly advanced cybersecurity solution,” he said.

As the agency’s incumbent data carrier, AT&T has a track record, which likely helped in winning the award, Mohan said. But “there was also the technology part of our proposal, how we plan to solve problems,” he added. “We don’t have all of USDA’s business, so we had to explain how we would take the network requirements they have and the providers they have and combine them into one network service, how we would incorporate what we have and what we don’t have into a single heterogeneous service.”