Blackballed

Companies excluded from FTS networking conference cry foul

"We encouraged the subcontractors to be proactive and show the teamwork [by exhibiting with their prime contractors] ... It wasn't an attempt to deny anybody anything, but to have the offerings presented in a way that customers could sort through them." | Sandra Bates, FTS commissioner

Bill Beeson doesn't like the way his company was treated by General Services Administration officials at a recent conference.

"They are small-business unfriendly," said Beeson, director of sales for Native American Systems Inc., an American Indian-owned 8(a) provider of systems integration and network services based in Denver.

After a successful showing at the 2001 Network Services Conference, run by GSA's Federal Technology Service, Native American Systems targeted this year's conference, held April 15-18 in Orlando, Fla., as the centerpiece of its exhibition activities for 2002.

Beeson registered the company in March for a 100-square-foot booth. He made flight and hotel reservations for four employees, bought a new exhibit for $5,000, spent another $2,000 on printing new materials and engaged onsite labor to assist, budgeting close to $8,000 for the work.

But less than a week before the conference began, GSA officials told Beeson his company did not hold the right kind of FTS prime contract and so would not be allowed to exhibit.

The decision was a surprising blow to the small company, which had used the 2001 conference to make contacts within agencies and even snag a few contracts.

"This was the federal network services show. This was our target show for the year, our biggest show," Beeson said. "It was our opportunity to really shine in the federal space with the network services we provide, and we were shut out."

Native American Systems was one of at least 13 companies turned away from the exhibition, including well-known network and communications providers such as Lucent Technologies Inc., Avaya Inc. and Nortel Networks Ltd. All of them exhibited in past years.

Companies rely on the FTS Network Services Conference to showcase their products and services to their federal customers. Thirty-eight companies, including AT&T Corp., Sprint Communications Corp. and WorldCom Inc., exhibited at the conference.

About 100 federal agencies sent representatives to the Orlando conference, according to AFCEA, also known as the Association for Communications, Electronics, Intelligence and Information System Professionals, the group engaged by FTS to organize the event.

FTS Commissioner Sandra Bates was apologetic about the confusion, but insisted the agency did the right thing in turning the companies away.

Bates said it had been FTS policy "for several years" to limit exhibit participation to prime contractors of specific kinds of vehicles, such as the FTS2001 long-distance contracts, the Metropolitan Area Acquisition contracts for local telecommunications services, and regional network services contracts and information security contracts.

When these contracts expired, the companies were no longer eligible to exhibit, Bates said. But she insisted no one was denied participation at the conference, because they could exhibit with the prime contractors.

"We encouraged the subcontractors to be proactive and show the teamwork" by exhibiting with their prime contractors, Bates said. "It wasn't an attempt to deny anybody anything, but to have the offerings presented in a way that customers could sort through them."

Bates said FTS needs to pay attention to exhibition applications earlier in the process to keep the problem from arising again. But she said it would be premature to consider whether FTS would make any changes in the eligibility requirements, because the agency staff has not yet had a chance to review and evaluate the conference.

Although Lucent and other companies declined to comment regarding their exclusion as exhibitors at the conference, the decision clearly caught them and AFCEA by surprise.

Becky Nolan, AFCEA executive vice president, said FTS provided her organization with a list of potential exhibitors to contact after last year's show, and that list included the companies later turned away. The association then found itself caught in the middle between FTS' directive, as its customer, and the companies, many of which are association members.

"This is an enormous issue for us," said Herb Browne, a retired Navy vice admiral and now president and chief executive officer of AFCEA. "It is not like AFCEA to ask someone not to exhibit."

Every year for more than a decade, GSA's Federal Technology Service has held a networking conference. An outgrowth of the agency's original FTS2000 contract, the long-distance program awarded in 1988 to Sprint and AT&T, the conference first served as a forum for federal agency customers to meet with the company handling its long-distance services and learn about new offerings.

Over the years, the event has evolved into a broad network services and security conference, including vendors who provide a wide range of networking and telecom services, such as those who hold MAA contracts for local services in cities around the country. The conference added an exhibition area for companies to demonstrate technologies and court customers.

The network services conference is the only event hosted by FTS. There is no comparable event for the agency's information technology providers.

The word started to go out to rejected companies between three and six weeks before the show, according to industry officials, even though registrations began as early as December 2001 and AFCEA posted participants' names on the conference Web site as they registered.

Margaret Binns, an FTS assistant commissioner who joined Bates in answering questions, said Native American Systems probably should not have been allowed to exhibit in 2001. The company defined its FTS contract as network services, Binns said, but it actually was a Federal Acquisition Services Technology contract.

Representatives of several of the rejected companies would not comment on the FTS action, saying there was nothing to be gained by speaking out.

But a Lucent government solutions manager confirmed that her company exhibited at last year's show although it didn't have a network services contract with FTS then, either.

Some companies that were allowed to exhibit expressed regret that others were excluded.

"I think FTS needs to be inclusive, and that extends to the forums. ... They're trying to create an artificial kind of barrier here," said James Payne, senior vice president with Qwest Communications International Inc., which had a booth at the exhibit.

"The user conference, by its very nature, is not a general trade event. It's intended for users of the FTS2001 contract," said Sprint spokesman John Polivka. "We weren't consulted about the decision. We didn't expect to be, but we do welcome others at the conference."

WorldCom representative Natasha Haubold pointed out that some vendors who were not able to participate were able to team up with partners who did exhibit.

"It's a more cost-effective solution for them a lot of times, [and they join with] companies with more name recognition," she said.

But another exhibitor, who asked not to be identified because he wants to "stay friends" with the people at FTS, said the procurement agency is stuck in the rut of doing things the same way they've always been done. The agency's IT shop is the big revenue generator for GSA, he said, and FTS ought to be looking to leverage its position.

Several corporate attendees observed that AFCEA also found itself trapped between serving the interests of FTS and its own self-interest. Running the conference is supposed to be a money-making activity, one person said, but it needs to be bigger for the association to turn a respectable profit.

Beeson hopes the controversy moves FTS to take a look at its relationships with small businesses.

"All the 8(a)s and small businesses that attended last year are just screwed out of it," Beeson said. "It's not very responsible [to say] we have nothing to offer."

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com.

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