October 21, 2014
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Efforts to get best price on network backfire

City Council efforts to strike the best deal for taxpayers have apparently backfired, resulting in a reduced level of electronic communication between departments and added cost to the city.

That’s not the way Council President Bruce Place sees it, however.

The issue revolves around “dark fiber,” or optical strands used for fiber-optic communication. Dark fiber is an unmanaged system; meaning only sending and receiving equipment limit its capacity. To make an analogy, “dark” fiber is like a highway that can accommodate a limitless amount of traffic.

“Lit” fiber, on the other hand, is a specified band within the system. It can only handle a set amount of information that is designated by the level of megabytes, or speed that it operates according to contract.

For the past five years, the city has leased a dark fiber system from Fiber Tech Technologies Networks LLC connecting City Hall, Buttonwoods Community Center, Department of Public Works, School Administration Building and the Pilgrim Senior Center. The cost was $1,175 a month.

Last March when the contract expired, the city’s management information system talked with Fiber Tech and agreed to no cost increase for another five years. When Raymond McKay, city network administrator, sought council approval to extend the contract, the City Council requested bids on the service. Also, as a practice, the council has shied away from five-year contracts, using a guide of three years as the maximum.

That’s when things got sticky.

Fiber Tech owns the system connecting the city buildings and it can accommodate 1,000 megabytes of information. It clearly had an advantage over other possible bidders. In addition, there’s a limited pool of dark fiber providers.

“No one provides dark fiber better,” said Oscar Shelton, city personnel director who is also overseeing MIS.

Nonetheless, Cox Communications submitted a bid. The Cox bid was $625 per location per month for a total of $1,980 for a 5-megabyte system.

Fiber Tech came in with a $2,300 per month bid for five years, although it had previously offered to extend its existing contract at the old rate. Cox bid $7,275 for a system capable of handling an equivalent of 1,000 megabytes.

The council balked. Instead of getting a better deal for the taxpayers, either way it went, the system would cost more.

“Fiber Tech wouldn’t allow anything less than a five-year contract,” Place said yesterday. He said the city could have gone for a three-year contract with Fiber Tech, but it would have ended up paying the same as it would have over five years.

There are other factors at play in Place’s opinion.

He said, with advances in technology, there’s no saying what will be available in five years. In addition, he said, there are plans on a statewide level to interconnect municipal buildings and schools that could serve the city.

The council has neither rejected nor accepted a contract and rather, said Shelton, inquired whether there was an alternative. There was.

Shelton said the city could use the existing Cox lit fiber service on a month-to-month basis, although the system offers a fraction of the speed available with dark fiber.

Meanwhile, Shelton said the city went back to Fiber Tech. After the local representative talked with corporate offices in Rochester, N.Y., the company offered $1,275 or $100 more than the old contract.

With no contract with Fiber Tech, Shelton turned to Cox. Now the city is paying Cox $1,980 a month for an inferior 5-megabyte system with an extension of a contract awarded last May to provide service to those buildings not on Fiber Tech.

The result has been a slowdown in the transfer of information, including downloads of large files, such as photographs and maps, and reduced speeds when the system is in heavy use. Shelton said there was a flurry of complaints when the city switched systems, but those have died down as people adopt the attitude, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

Meanwhile, with no contract, Fiber Tech has been in touch with the city to start the process of disconnecting its network. To reconnect the system would cost an estimated $5,000, he said.

“I believe the council is trying to do the right thing,” said Shelton. “It’s good to get out there and see what else is available but, unfortunately, they came back with more.”

Place said he has been assured that the loss of dark fiber in no way has compromised public safety. Also, he said, the city does not use the full capacity of the system and that, in fact, it was never used at the Buttonwoods Center or by the school administration.

Asked if he would reconsider if it meant a savings to the city, Place said he would, but he added, “Whatever, we don’t want it.”

Other council members said they would reconsider bids.

Joseph Solomon observed that under an ordinance he introduced, the lowest bidder is entitled to come before the council and explain why they feel they’re qualified for the job. Solomon said he would go with what’s best for the taxpayer.

Camille Vella-Wilkinson said she would like to see the city get out of the Cox arrangement because of the added cost.


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