Dreams of the DISA Deal

New $877M DOD network becomes the new focus for companies looking for government funds

February 11, 2003

6 Min Read
Dreams of the DISA Deal

With the end of the telecom turmoil tunnel still nowhere in sight, many struggling optical networking companies continue to set their hopes on a number of lucrative contracts with the Department of Defense.

Tracking down such deals has been tricky and fraught with competition -- but the stakes are high (see WorldCom Keeps $450M Defense Deal). The Department is expected to award a range of different telecom-related contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars this year.

The latest government business to gather attention are contracts from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) worth $877 million. The DOD agency announced last May that it wanted to build a global telecommunications network based on optical networking technology and issued two requests for information (RFIs) for the fiber and the equipment needed to build it (see Is Uncle Sam an Optical Sugar Daddy? ). Equipment and fiber vendors across the industry are eagerly awaiting DISA’s requests for proposals (RFPs), which are expected to go out any day now.

"That’s what people are waiting for now,” says Corvis Corp. (Nasdaq: CORV) director of investor relations Andrew Backman.

The project, titled the Global Information Grid Bandwidth Expansion (GIG BE), is meant to provide increased bandwidth and survivable communications to key military installations around the world. It is part of an overall DOD network-centric warfare strategy, which is to connect all the elements of war prosecution, from the front line to the headquarters in Washington.

“They’re looking for a constant flow of intelligence up the chain of command,” says Input analyst Payton Smith. "I think that particularly for the telecommunications industry, the government is attractive… Especially the Department of Defense.” Smith points out that the Department estimated last year that it would spend about $6 billion on telecom in 2002. Input expects that number to rise to about $9 billion by 2007.

To make that happen, a lot of pieces have to fall in place, and a lot of money has to be invested in network equipment and components. And of course, everybody wants a piece of the action. The DISA Website’s list of companies that have voiced interest in GIG BE reads like a Who’s Who of the optical networking equipment world.

“Everybody’s competing in this thing,” Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. analyst Simon Leopold says. “Just name the company, and they’re probably on the list.”

Not only are there large sums of money to be made on a potential deal with DISA, but there could be money to be made quickly. With an ongoing war on terrorism and a war with Iraq looming ever closer, it would seem that the DOD doesn’t want to waste any time getting its network set up.

“The GIG BE is a ‘fast-tracked’ program,” the DISA Website states. “[The] schedule is to build a core in FY03 worldwide. Equipment will be installed starting 60 days after equipment contract award, and be completed in 6 months. Fiber contractor(s) will extend fiber to sites in FY04 and sites will be inserted into GIG BE mesh as they become operational. We will consider contractors’ recommendations for optimizing implementation.”

In addition to having the speed and security of government funding behind the project, snagging a government contract can also function as a catalyst for business in the private sector. “I think that a lot of the stuff coming out of the government will appeal to the enterprise,” says Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) spokesman Steve Lunceford. “Anything we’re looking at doing on the government side, we’re also looking at how they can be applied on the enterprise side.”

But while anyone and everyone is welcome to voice their interest in the GIG BE project while its still in the RFI stage, quite a few companies will discover that they simply don’t qualify to compete for the project once DISA has issued the RFPs. Due to security concerns, only companies that possess SECRET facility and personnel clearances will be able to obtain much of the information necessary for participating. DISA doesn't explain what the SECRET military classification entails [ed. note: if they did, it wouldn't be a secret now, would it?].

In addition, the contract awards will comply with the Buy America Act, according to a DISA Q&A on the project. The Agency doesn’t specify what this involves, but some observers say this could mean that alien equipment giants like Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) and Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) will be excluded from the RFPs.

As for the technical requirements, it looks as if DISA is looking to build a mostly all-optical mesh network, mainly based on all-optical switches. The Agency is, however, also evaluating the benefits of OEO switches, according the Q&A on its Website. When it comes to the fiber, the Agency specifies that it doesn’t have to be 100 percent the same across the network, but that it does have to meet all of the functional requirements, including a minimum 10 Gbit/s data rate.

So who is most likely to come out on top in the GIG BE race? DISA specifies that it may award one contract to multiple vendors, but that it could also award multiple contracts to a single vendor. The Agency states that it is not obligated to favor small businesses or startups, and many industry observers agree that systems integrators will most likely bag a lot of the contracts (see Hunting for Gold in Homeland Security).

While many of the companies on the list are being tight-lipped about their ambitions to land a contract, one equipment vendor has been outspoken about its aspirations of grabbing a piece of the pie. Discussing Corvis's earnings on a conference call last week, CEO David Huber said that the vendor expected to be able to compete for between $200 million and $400 million of the upcoming government RFPs (see Qwest Comes Through for Corvis). Corvis launched a separate subsidiary in October last year to address what it sees as growing opportunities in the government space. The company expects to report revenues from its first government contract this quarter (see Corvis Targets Feds).

“The government is looking to build an all optical mesh network,” Corvis's Backman says. “Corvis is the only company that has delivered that to date... What the government is asking for is Corvis’s sweet-spot.”

“I think that Corvis has a good shot,” says Merrill Lynch's Leopold. “but it’s not a slam-dunk.” He points out that while Corvis is a leader in the all-optical switching category, other players could emerge to challenge it. “It’s possible that Lucent Technologies Inc. [NYSE: LU] could pull the Lambda Router out of the mothballs."

There are other RFPs in the works as well. Input is currently tracking seven DOD RFPs it expects to surface this year relating to telecommunications, according to Smith. He says he doesn’t know how much most of the contracts are worth but that Input expects a Navy contract for a joint tactical radio system to be worth about $720 million.

— Eugénie Larson, Reporter, Light Reading

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