The U.S. government has awarded a contract to AT&T Business Services to provide a new search engine service for locating government documents and services. AT&T Business Services will employ search technology created by FAST, previously known for AllTheWeb.com and for its alliance with Lycos. The FAST technology will be applied to FirstGov.gov, a portal for government services that was launched by the Clinton administration in September 2000 and recently revamped by the Bush administration.
FAST was founded in Oslo, Norway, in 1997 by two scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Technology. The company trades on the Oslo stock exchange.
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) says the contract is valued at $2 million a year, with a term of up to 4 years. Some 80 companies responded to the GSA solicitation, including major U.S. search firms such as Inktomi, Google, and Yahoo!.
Some users grumbled in newsgroups about the choice of a non-U.S. company to provide a search engine for U.S. government documents. A spokesperson for Google said the company does not comment on its business relationships. The loss may be especially disappointing for officials at Inktomi. That company had provided the previous FirstGov search engine on a no-charge basis through the Federal Search Foundation, which was set up by Inktomi founder and chairman Eric Brewer.
A spokesperson at FAST's U.S. office in Foster City, California, said the company was not allowed to comment on the controversy, and referred the query to a GSA spokesperson, who said: "The government has an obligation to buy the best value. GSA selected AT&T for FirstGov.gov search engine services because the AT&T proposal provided the best value to the government—best value in terms of technical merit and price. FAST is only one part of the AT&T proposal."
The GSA spokesperson also noted that the contract was awarded on merit after a careful procurement analysis. AT&T provides the server hardware to power FirstGov.gov. No press release announcing the award appeared at AT&T's official archive.
The press release from GSA explains the choice, stressing the size and complexity of a single tool to search across diverse agencies:
Proposal evaluation was conducted by a cross-agency team that included representatives from the GSA, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce and independent third party experts.... Citizens will be able to request search results to be displayed by category, subject and agency. The configurability and support for Web services offered by this platform will allow FirstGov affiliates to seamlessly integrate with FirstGov search services. The government's request for proposal required an engine that could index a variety of formats, including popular office applications and Adobe PDF. Specifications called for the engine to handle the current corpus of some 50 million documents in a quarter second or less. The GSA says the search service will deal with databases as well as static documents, and will allow the display of results by category, subject, and agency. FirstGov received 50 million hits in 2001 (though the GSA does not give its definition of "hit").
In February the government launched a new version of the FirstGov.gov portal, transforming its orientation from an organizational or agency perspective to a user-transaction perspective. A number of states across the country have changed their government sites along the same lines under similar "e-government" initiatives. In fact, federal officials seeking to explain why a Norwegian product was chosen for the FirstGov search engine might take solace in knowing that Michigan officials previously explained to citizens that their state portal was hosted in Colorado by a division of IBM.