Wednesday, January 11, 2006

10 questions San Franciscans need to ask about that RFP (continued)

6. Are there plans to put feet on the street to reach constituent groups to initiate development of community content, tools and activities that maximize the network?

After the business plan was submitted to the mayor, various community relations activities generated upport from neighborhood associations, non-profit and faith-based community service groups, chambers of commerce and tourism groups. Reps from the city built relationships among organizations, as well as between groups and the city, to put economic development and digital divide programs in place. The city hosted several neighborhood pilot launch parties to draw attention to the network and the programs.

7. Is the RFP specific enough and demanding enough to ensure that citizens’ best interests are served?

When reviewing the RFP of each city, I feel Philly’s document asks for vendors to provide a lot more detail than the S.F. RFP does to ensure certain objectives are met. For example, item 2.2.2 in the Philly RFP says “Respondents must define in their Proposals a preliminary architecture for the System as well as the services to conduct a more thorough and detailed design for the System.” Then it lists 11 points that must be addressed. Of course, if you do all of the preliminary work Philly did, you can be more demanding in an RFP.

8. Are there requirements to make sure the network infrastructure doesn’t become obsolete?

This might seem like a nit to pick, but Philadelphia requested (item 2.2.6) “a detailed plan for how and when this technology refresh process will occur during the contract term.” They also specify that upgrades be backward compatible, request that vendors’ product roadmaps reflect the intended upgrade plan and expect for the entire network infrastructure to be replaced through refreshes in the course of seven years.

S.F. appears to be more relaxed on this point, asking bidders to explain how they will determine during the course of the contract when and how upgrades are to be done. I bring this issue up because technology obsolescence can kill your network or cost a fortune to overcome if you don’t plan appropriately for it. Like other points in the S.F. RFP, it seems like they’re touching the right bases, but not carefully enough to ensure citizens don’t get screwed later.

9. Is a proof of concept required?

In Philly, the winning vendor is required (item 2.3) to build a 15-square mile proof of concept network that will operate for three months and be “sufficient to demonstrate the functionality and viability of the recommended solution.” Seems to be a prudent move since it’s better to know early if there are major issues to resolve then rather than after the other 120 square miles have been built out.

10. Does someone have the political will to put the brakes on something that might not be a great idea?

Whatever you want to say about the Philadelphia initiative, the people driving the process showed a willingness to slow down, revise, re-write or whatever was necessary to get the job done right. If you look at some of the dissent about the S.F. project, it’s about too few people making key decisions who aren’t plugged in enough with citizens. Even though the RFP calls for this network to be build for free, everything comes with a price, often paid by those citizens. Citizens are saying they want to see enough to know enough so they can determine if this RFP is a good idea. And they want it changed if it isn’t good.

Bottom line. Many cities are racing to be one of the first with muni WiFi deployments. They see what Philly is doing and they want to be part of that. When you look at these first couple of cities that are deploying, you see the political fights, the early network build outs and the first couple of failures. What you don’t see is all of the preliminary work that went into (or should have gone into) these launches.

It’s a staggering job to do this muni WiFi thing right. Yet with the stakes being what they are, don’t you owe it to your city to ask these important 10 questions, with an understanding of how these pioneering cities addressed the issues?

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