VA disconnects Sprint's voice, data services

The U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs will complete a major network transition this fall, migrating from Sprint as its primary service provider to a new architecture that splits telecom traffic across three other carriers: AT&T, Qwest and Verizon.

The migration is significant given the size of VA's network, which links more than 150 hospitals, 780 outpatient clinics and regional offices scattered around the country. The network supports high-bandwidth, high-security applications used by VA's 300,000-plus employees.

The VA's network migration is a sign of the times for federal agencies, which are in the process of transitioning from the expiring FTS2001 telecom contracts to Networx, a 10-year, $20 billion program offering cutting-edge voice, data, video and wireless services. FTS2001 contracts have a continuity of service clause that expires in June 2011.

While the VA is near completion on its network overhaul, many other federal agencies are behind schedule in migrating from FTS2001 to Networx. The issue is attracting the attention of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose chair said in April that 62% of the Networx transition effort is incomplete. The committee plans to hold a hearing on Networx migration issues in May.

"The VA has had very, very clear expectations about what they wanted to do, and this [transition to Networx] has been a good one," says Jeff Mohan, executive director of the Networx Program Office at AT&T Government Solutions. Mohan added that for many other agencies, "there is still a lot of work yet to be done."

Powering e-health records

With demand for capacity growing at a clip of 6% a month, the VA's network is at the heart of the agency's mission of providing healthcare and other benefits to an estimated 23 million U.S. veterans. The network's key application is the VA's electronic medical records system known as VISTA.

The VA chose to do a like-for-like network transition using the Networx Universal contract, which is held by AT&T, Qwest and Verizon. Sprint, the VA's incumbent carrier, was the only bidder that lost Networx Universal back in 2007.The VA ended up with multiple carriers because it split its network services into three categories and bid each one separately under Networx Universal.

"We took a best-value approach to our Networx migration strategy," says Dave Cheplick, Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Engineering and Telecommunications within the VA's Office of Information and Technology. "We were looking at what was going to be available across the Networx program, and we wanted to make sure we had broken down our purchases from a good project management point of view into bundles that we could focus on. This was important given that we have a limited amount of staff to work on the program."

The VA's three categories of telecom services are:

* Wide-area network, which was awarded to AT&T for an estimated $120 million in 2008. The WAN transition will be done in July.

* Toll-free and inbound/outbound voice services were awarded to Qwest, which also serves as the secondary carrier on the agency's WAN. This deal was estimated at $60 million when it was awarded in 2008. This transition will be done in the fall.

* Call-center services -- dubbed NARS for the National Automated Response Systems -- were awarded to Verizon. This deal was estimated at $21 million when it was awarded in 2008. This transition is complete.

The VA has not experienced any network outages related to its Networx transition, Cheplick says.

Cheplick says one key to having the migration go as smoothly as possible is having a solid inventory of its network services. "The better your inventory is across the entire enterprise, the better able you are to make determinations of how to scope your level of effort to ensure you are getting the best value in obtaining services from the carriers," he says.

Because its network is so big and complex, the VA chose to do a like-for-like network transition and then upgrade technology afterwards. Cheplick says other network operators may be able to switch carriers and handle network upgrades and optimization in one step.

"We were not ready to make a decision about full VoIP implementation, therefore we stayed like-for-like in terms of capabilities," Cheplick explains.

The VA says it is already reaping the benefits of the lower prices on Networx, which is helping offset the cost of growing network capacity.

"When you break up large telecom packages into smaller services and components, you should be getting a better deal," says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of Fed Sources. "You have to trade that off against what possible impact it's going to create on your oversight and contract management downstream. But it may make more sense economically and probably in contractor performance."

Biggest loser: Sprint

The biggest loser in the VA's transition from FTS2001 to Networx is Sprint. Indeed, losing federal business such as the VA's has contributed to Sprint's losses over the last three years.

The VA had Sprint as its sole carrier from the late 1990s until 2007, when the agency began moving to a multi-carrier strategy to improve its network redundancy and reliability. That's when VA awarded AT&T a contract for MPLS- based data services.  

By this fall, the agency will quit using Sprint altogether for wireline services.

Cheplick said the VA has taken two years to migrate to the Networx contract because its network is so big.

"It's 10 years worth of inventory," Cheplick says. "If you're doing a physical transition from one carrier to another, there are workload issues. T-1s take 60 days to order, DS-3s take 90 days, and OC-3s can take 120 days or more. Just making sure you've got all of that lined up so the carriers can work on it takes a while."

Cheplick says the VA has migrated 1,300 WAN circuits from Sprint to AT&T or Qwest, with just 200 left to be transitioned. "We expect that to be complete sometime in the July timeframe," he says.

In terms of voice services, the VA has transitioned 200,000 lines from Sprint over to Qwest. "It is our expectation that we will complete transition of our voice services from Sprint over to Qwest in the September/October time frame, and then we will proceed with the remaining disconnect orders that need to be processed through the fall of 2010," Cheplick says.

Sprint says VA will remain "a very substantial customer" for its wireless services, which the agency has not yet migrated to the Networx contract. Sprint says it supports tens of thousands of mobile devices in the VA with mobile integration and broadband services.

"We've shifted our focus to helping the VA leverage the power of mobility in the healthcare environment to utilize our unique access, push-to-talk and 4G services," says Bill White, vice president of federal sales programs at Sprint. White said Sprint is eyeing opportunities to provide 4G services inside hospitals, across hospital campuses and directly to veterans who can take advantage of the VA's burgeoning home-based tele-health programs.

Cheplick says that so far it has been manageable for VA to oversee multiple carriers. But the agency expects additional turmoil among its service providers in the future.

"We're still focused on transition, but one issue out on the horizon is that when we look at IP convergence for voice, video and data services, the question is whether three carriers is one too many," Cheplick says. "The big issue for us when it comes to converging voice into our overall transport strategy is which of the carriers do we stay with and which do we abandon."

Read more about lans and wans in Network World's LANs & WANs section.

This story, "VA disconnects Sprint's voice, data services" was originally published by Network World.

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