NASA contract up in air

Rockville firm mum on space communications deal for $113 million that was disputed by Calif. competitor

Friday, July 28, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Photo courtesy of FrequentisUSA
A technician tests equipment of Frequentis GmbH, parent company of FrequentisUSA, which is competing for a NASA voice communications contract.

This story has been corrected from a previous version. For the full correction text, click here.

A disputed $113 million contract for NASA mission voice communications, awarded less than a month ago to FrequentisUSA in Rockville, is still floating in the inner space of contracting red tape.

On July 11, rival communications firm Quintron Systems in Santa Maria, Calif., filed a protest to the overnment Accountability Office of the NASA contract to FrequentisUSA.

The GAO dismissed the protest this week.

But NASA still rescinded the award.

A few days ago, one FrequentisUSA executive said he was ‘‘jubilant” on winning the award, its first from NASA.

Now, no one from the company is returning calls.

And it remains unclear whether the local company will be the one making the communications equipment to carry voices of future space shuttle astronauts and NASA control room personnel.

Even though the GAO dismissed the Quintron protest, NASA has decided to rescind the award, according to Nipa N. Shah, NASA contracting officer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

She said that FrequentisUSA may still get it, but that ‘‘NASA is to take corrective action because we believe it is in the best interests to correct some things in it.” Shah would not say if the ‘‘things” stemmed from the protest.

In an e-mail sent by NASA this week to Compunetix Inc. of Monroeville, Pa., one of the losing companies bidding for the award, the agency stated it decided to rescind in order to conduct a new evaluation followed by a new selection decision, said Mike Hockenberry, Compunetix’s federal systems division systems manager.

Another losing bidder, Orion Systems Inc. of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., also received the e-mail, said Hal Gordon, Orion Systems sales manager. ‘‘It is hard to say what is going to happen,” Hockenberry said. ‘‘Somehow the NASA lawyers looking at the protest decided that this is the appropriate action and perhaps that they could not survive the protest engagement in court.”

Shah said fully resolving protest cases can take 100 days, but NASA’s source selection authority for the contract, Rick Obenshain, will likely make a decision within 30 days.

NASA’s original award to FrequentisUSA, a 15-employee subsidiary of Frequentis GmbH of Austria, was for providing the agency’s Mission Operations Voice Enhancement systems for the next 15 years. Last week, a happy Robert Pfister, president of parallel subsidiary Frequentis Defense Inc. and former president of FrequentisUSA, said, ‘‘For our U.S. subsidiaries this is absolutely our the biggest contract yet, although the parent company has gotten some NASA contracts.”

Three days later, reacting to news of the protest, Vince Campanella, FrequentisUSA vice president for engineering, said, ‘‘We will expect the worst, but plan for the best,” adding that the company had already begun to prepare for fulfilling the contract.

Not so fast.

Quintron Systems’ David Wilhite, vice president and general manager, filed another protest, this time to the Small Business Administration, questioning Frequentis’ claim to qualify for the NASA contract under the SBA’s small business set-aside program.

‘‘If you look at any information about Frequentis, it is a large corporation,” Wilhite said. ‘‘When you say you are a small set-aside, the companies self certify. It is not NASA’s responsibility, but SBA’s to check that.”

Asked by The Gazette if this is one of the ‘‘things” being re-evaluated by NASA, Wilhite said, ‘‘We have not heard yet. I suppose they could.” He added, ‘‘it [NASA’s] was a very extensive protest.” He said Quintron, with about 100 employees, has been awarded contracts from NASA since the 1980s.

Tiffani Shea Clements, SBA public affairs specialist, confirmed that the agency is reviewing Quintron’s second protest filed against Frequentis, but could not comment on an ongoing dispute. However, she did explain that for the type of procurement in question, ‘‘A small business manufacturer for that procurement is one with not more than 1,000 employees (which must include the employees of all affiliates).”

The Austrian parent of FrequentisUSA has 730 employees and provides communications systems at air traffic control centers; air defense facilities; police, fire and ambulance call centers; and railroad command centers, in more than 50 countries. Its net profit in 2005 was $4.2 million, down from $4.4 million in 2004. Pfister declined to share revenue and profit⁄loss figures for the U.S. subsidiaries.

The NASA contract is to provide for the design, acquisition, development, integration, test, delivery and maintenance of all hardware, firmware and software components for mission operations’ voice systems.

Frequentis USA planned to split its work 50-50 between the new NASA contract and previous contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic control communications systems, Pfister said. The Rockville company has an FAA contract that runs through 2010 to replace air traffic control communications as needed nationwide.

If it gets the NASA contract, FrequentisUSA will manufacture most of the equipment at its Rockville facility and some will be contracted to Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. in Columbia, Pfister said. Last week, before the Gazette learned of the protests, Pfister said that the Rockville firm will be hiring new employees to handle the contract, but he did not know how many.

‘‘If this contract was for the work all at once, then it would indeed be huge,” Pfister said at the time. ‘‘But still, winning [the contract] is a hell of a lot better than losing. Over 15 years, if NASA exercises all of it, this will be a major portion of our work.”

If it gets the contract.

Correction, July 31, 2006:The original version this report inaccurately called the Government Accountability Office the General Accounting Office. The report has been corrected.