Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 2 / June 1, 1994 / Page 2

General Accounting Office Punts

by Brock N. Meeks

WASHINGTON, DC (May 16) The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently filled a temporary pothole on the road to what will eventually become the nation's foremost research and development tool: A high speed computer network that will link six supercomputer centers located throughout the U.S.

On May 9, the GAO issued a six-page finding in which it dismissed Sprint's protest of a $50 million award given to MCI by the National Science Foundataion (NSF) to build its very high speed backbone network service (vBNS). The NSF awarded MCI the job of building what, for all intents and purposes, will become a hands-on driver training course for the information superhighway.

The job of building this network out of what the NSF (and MCI) likes to call "bleeding edge technology" will be done under a specialized grant called a "cooperative agreement." Such agreements don't carry any of the performance penalties of a hard and fast contract. If MCI (or its subcontractors) screw up -- and both the NSF and MCI have more or less said screw ups will occur, given the state of "experimental" technology that will go into this flagship network -- MCI still gets its check in the mail.

No shirt, no shoes, no data? So what?! Cut those guys a check anyway. Because, well, hell, at least they're trying. That, in essence, is the soft white underbelly of the so-called cooperative agreement.

It was the choice of a cooperative agreement as the funding vehicle that pissed off Sprint, who was a losing bidder, along with AT&T, among others. Sprint also alleged that federal funds were essentially going to underwrite the development of MCI's commercial Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology. ATM is a technology some say is crucial to high speed networks. Sprint and the rest of the world thought MCI didn't have any ATM technology, until May 4 when MCI pulled the proverbial ATM rabbit out of its hat by announcing a six-node precommerical ATM network backed by Northern Telecom.

Sprint sweetened its protest by claiming that there also was a conflict of interest involving an MCI subcontractor and a member of the National Science Board, the group that rides herd over the NSF checkbook.

But Sprint's cries fell on deaf ears. The GAO punted. Instead of showing some political will, it chose to simply dismiss the protest out of hand claiming it has no jurisdiction to review a protest filed when a cooperative agreement is involved. (Didn't we tell you this funding creature had a soft white underbelly?)

In other words: GAO didn't have the balls to consider the protest.

Apparently the GAO comes up short in technology wonk department, too. When discussing Sprint's protest, the GAO writes that Sprint alleged "that federal funds are improperly being used to underwrite MCI's commercial development of an AUTOMATED TELLER MACHINE service." (Emphasis not in the original.)

Now that is a scoop. Or it would be if the GAO lawyers had a brain. What Sprint meant -- and what the GAO obviously has no clue about -- is ATM, as in the high speed data transfer technology which has been unceremoniously hyped as the Christ of High Speed Computing.

GAO said under the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA) of 1984 and its own Bid Protest Regulations, it's only allowed to review protests of real contracts. Those ironclad, fuck-up-and-you-pay-the-piper procurement agreements that aren't suited for our nation's most prestigous, most expensive computer resources.

Sprint tried to make the case in its protest that the High Performance Computing Act, in which Congress ponied up billions in funding for various high speed computing projects, is actually a procurement statute. GAO said "we disagree." End of discussion.

GAO said that because the High Performance Computing Act doesn't specifically tell the NSF to use a contract, well, then it can pretty much damn well chose whatever funding mechanism it wants. And in this case, it's a cooperative agreement.

And because GAO doesn't have jurisdiction over cooperative agreements, it also chose not to review the allegations of conflict of interest. But that didn't stop them from commenting on the allegations just the same. You see, the president of the National Science Board (remember, they hold the NSF purse strings) is James Duderstadt. He's also the president of the University of Michigan (an institution that also happens to be among the top 5 in total taxpayer dollars received every year as a result of NSF grants). The University of Michigan is also home to Merit, which is a consortium of Michigan universities and is an MCI subcontractor to help build the vBNS with $50 million of your money.

As the GAO decision points out, Duderstadt is entitled to a seat on Merit board of directors. A seat he has apparently chosen not to fill, GAO says. Still, that brings up the pesky question of if Duderstadt is president of the National Science Board and the National Science Board approved $50 million to go to MCI, some of which will flow to Merit, does that portend a conflict of interest?

You make the call the GAO went mute on the subject. GAO said "we do not review protests of cooperative agreement awards based on allegations of conflict of interest." Oh, and by the way, GAO is kind enough to inform us that Duderstadt (who isn't formally identified in the ruling expect by title) "did not participate in the selection of MCI for the award."

With the Sprint protest out of the way, MCI and NSF can get down to negotiating the final details of the vBNS contract. The technology will choke and sputter and maybe even ignite a spark or two of technological advancement. Let's hope that, unlike the current flagship network, the operators of the NSFNet (which is Merit, for those keeping score), MCI keeps both hands on the table and is open and honest about its own network's shortcomings. When the technology stumbles, let's hope they admit it and provide details the entire computing network can learn from.

It's the least they can do with real world test lab that would cost hundreds of millions to build and maintain if they had to do it themselves. Instead, MCI gets a token $50 million for driving lessons on the so-called information superhighway. Let's hope they remember the correct hand signals when the turn indicators burn out.

Meeks out...

Copyright © 1994 CyberWire Dispatch

Brock Meeks files his Dispatch articles from Washington, D.C. When he's not watching over Cyberspace, he's a reporter for Communications Daily.

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