TOP 100: Lumen’s strategy goes beyond its network modernization base

"Nobody can do it all, we rely specifically on partnerships, and we do both," Lumen's public sector lead Zain Ahmed says.

"Nobody can do it all, we rely specifically on partnerships, and we do both," Lumen's public sector lead Zain Ahmed says. Courtesy of Lumen

The No. 31 company on our 2022 Top 100 is also focused on execution for the task orders it has booked under the EIS contract vehicle to transform agency networks.

Pursuing and capturing task orders has been priority one for Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink) and the other eight carriers on the governmentwide EIS network modernization contract since their awards were finalized in late 2017.

Lumen has since scored pair of wins whose ceilings exceed $1 billion: first in 2020 with the Interior Department at a $1.6 billion potential value, and a second announced earlier this year with the Agriculture Department that is worth up to $1.2 billion.

Now the focus for Lumen, the other carriers, federal agencies and the General Services Administration that oversees the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions effort is on transitioning to that contract and executing the task orders.

"Most of the fair opportunities are out. There might be some that are still sitting, but not a lot," said Zain Ahmed, senior vice president for public sector at Lumen. "There are still some agencies that have to make decisions... and how they're going to go forward with either doing like-for-like or transformation."

Lumen sits at No. 31 on our 2022 Top 100 rankings with $1.1 billion in unclassified prime contract obligations.

Interior and Agriculture fall into the latter category of agencies that have embraced transformation and modernization, or as Ahmed told me are "not going to go do what (they've) always done."

Lumen is working on two areas in particular for Interior: one being managed services to upgrade the core network, and the other for managed access services covering cloud computing and wireless access.

Agriculture sought both similar managed services focused on modernizing the core network and augmenting technologies such as edge computing, where that connectivity is extended to the edge for enabling data collection and transmission.

For both of those cases, Ahmed said the departments looked to address modern needs of users and which technologies will map to those.

Emerging tools like edge computing and others are certainly a focus for many agencies, but Ahmed said the network as a foundational core is the priority and starting point. Otherwise none of those advances are possible.

"If that is weak, you can't do any of APIs (application programming interfaces)," Ahmed said of the network.

Partnerships are one important leg in Lumen's strategy to offer that strong network core to build related technologies on top of.

One example of that approach is seen in a partnership between Lumen and T-Mobile that connects the Lumen's edge computing platform to T-Mobile's 5G mobile network. A joint wireless access offering from the team is available through Lumen's EIS contract.

But Lumen's partnerships are not limited large businesses such as T-Mobile, which needs little-to-no introduction of who they are. Ahmed said that in the cybersecurity landscape, there's "tens of thousands of companies out there that do services" of potential interest.

"Nobody can do it all, we rely specifically on partnerships, and we do both -- we also are a subcontractor when it's required for certain needs or mission requirements," Ahmed said.

Talking about the network as the starting point was not the only dose of realism Ahmed offered me amid his optimism regarding network modernization.

Our conversation also focused on how much work goes into it with this caveat from him: "Keep in mind that transformation does take time and transitioning will not be easy in those timelines."

One element of that timeline Ahmed referred to in our conversation is how GSA has sought to push agencies away from their legacy telecommunications contracts and toward EIS.

Deadlines are supposed to be such, but those have kept being pushed to the right at multiple points. The most recent extension signed off on in February takes into account the COVID-19 pandemic's effects on supply chains and government operations.

Current services under the legacy contracts can continue after those expire on May 31, 2023. GSA's old timeline set Sept. 30 of this year (the end of federal fiscal year 2022) as the date by which agencies should have fully migrated their telecom services to EIS.

The key for agencies is to show GSA at least a pathway to transitioning even if the deadlines are what they are, Ahmed said.

"If it's a good faith conversation, GSA is there to serve the agencies and we're in a similar position," Ahmed said. "Wherever we can work with them to create more runway, we're happy to work with them through that process."

Ahmed conceded that the entire ecosystem has "taken a hit" from what is still happening across supply chains, whether that be the shortages of materials needed for the networks or the labor constraints that every sector is dealing with.

Here are some of the tools Lumen is using for what it can control: ordering ahead of need, providing complementary equipment as available, working with vendors to extend warranties while searching for newer equipment.

"We're still working through them, they're not behind us and continue to be a challenge," Ahmed said. "A lot of this discussion is directly with agency heads to make sure we're aligned on the pace that they want to go, and what the reality matches to."

(A future episode of our Project 38 podcast will have my full conversation with Ahmed that includes an in-depth discussion on how the public sector team and larger Lumen enterprise work with each other, plus his main focus areas since becoming public sector SVP last year and tips for making the journey to network modernization less daunting than it often appears at first)

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