The real competition is about to begin for the eight government contractors picked to update the Air Force's communication systems -- modernizing databases and giving forces in battle better access to information -- under a program that could be worth as much as $9 billion total.

Now, the winners are eligible to vie for specific task orders under the large umbrella contract.

Eighteen companies submitted proposals to be included in the project, called the Network Centric Solutions program. The Air Force announced the eight winners, including four small businesses, late Friday. General Dynamics Corp. of Needham Heights, Mass.; Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean; Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda; Northrop Grumman Information Technology of Herndon; the Centech Group Inc. of Arlington; Multimax Inc. of Largo; Telos Corp. of Ashburn; and NCI Information Systems Inc. of Reston are now eligible to compete for the work.

Much of it involves integrating networks, developing software systems and providing computer hardware to Air Force units. All of the technology is intended to meet a single standard, said Melva Strang, program manager for the contract, which is managed by the Air Force's Standard Systems Group out of Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

"The fact that the architectures will be standardized and we can speed up the transfer of information will make a huge difference in how quickly decision-makers can make decisions about what's going in the battle environment," Strang said.

For example, an Air Force employee at a base in Germany will be able to tap into a database system in Utah.

All of the winning companies were required to pull together large teams of contractors that will work with them on each task order. General Dynamics' team, for instance, includes Boeing Co., Accenture Ltd. and Arlington-based CACI International Inc. Northrop Grumman will work with Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego and McLean-based BearingPoint Inc., among others.

It is impossible to predict how much revenue the winners will derive from the award as they compete for different task orders. But their inclusion in the group is significant because it narrows the field of companies that will be eligible for the work.

"It was highly competitive, highly demanding, . . . and the proposal was a major undertaking for any company large or small," said Carleton S. Jones, president of Largo-based Multimax, one of the four small companies picked to participate in the program. "We think it's very significant. It makes us a preferred source for everything covered in the scope of the contract."

The scope is broad. It could include everything from telephone service to network security products. Along with the Air Force, contracting offices throughout the Department of Defense will be able to use the contract to buy goods and services from companies chosen to participate.

Strang said work under the contract, which could last up to five years -- a three-year base period and two optional one-year extensions -- is expected to begin within 30 days.