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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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"I think we have a failure to communicate"
The N Florida Rural Broadband saga continues

On July 12, 2012, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Christopher Holt reported discouraging news regarding the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) project to establish rural broadband in 15 Florida counties. He reported the following:

• Overall spending: should be 75%.
          It is actually at 20%

• New miles deployed: should be 566.
           It is actually at 0

• Wireless links: should be 67.
          They are actually at 0

• Points of interconnection: should be 55.
           They are actually at 0 or nowhere near 55
• Signed LM agreements: should be 22.
           They are actually at 0 or nowhere near 22

• Potential LM agreement: should be 36 actually.
          They are at 0 or nowhere near 36.

• Connected CAIs: should be 72.
          They are actually at 0.

Mr. Holt's conclusion, "The Project is significantly behind."

The NTIA's report speaks for itself. Based on this performance, the NTIA shut down the funding to the NFBA and ordered them to come up with a Corrective Action Plan.

 By every measure the NFBA project is behind schedule. So far behind that the Government must decide if the deficiencies can be made up in the time allowed by the grant. If the Feds decide that the project has been so badly run that the deficiency can never be made up, the individual county representatives will have to go to their constituents and tell them that they have to pay back the money -- now somewhere around $10,000,000 out of a total of $40 million which is scheduled to be spent on the project.

What is going on here?

The Governmental Service Group (GSG) is administering the project for the NFBA. Their expertise is in water and waste water. They have never built a wireless broadband network before.

Folks at GSG keep disappearing. Others as well. Each move rubber stamped or blind eyed by the NFBA.

The engineers: Aspen Wireless – reported to have come up with the conceptual design. Good bye Aspen.

Keenwire and Air Wire were next.

Now sitting in the wings on the chopping block is, Rapid Systems, the folks who are presently building the system and paying for it out of their own pockets, while the Feds hold the money. Rapid Systems, out of Tampa, a Florida firm, is the only firm that has successfully built a broadband wireless network from the ground up.

Finance people -- out: Director of Financial Services, Heidi Snyder took a position with a local government. Senior Project Manager Marguerite McCauley, left to take a position as CFO with a health care consulting firm.

FRBA, the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance was built by Rapid Systems in four months. Rapid Systems is running the network. GSG was the Project Management Firm. GSG was fired.

The attorney -- quit: The lead NFBA Attorney and a former senior partner with the law firm of NGN, the experienced and respected Crystie Cary – gone. She remains the chief attorney for FRBA.

On April 26, 2011, the Operations Committee held a special meeting to discuss the concerns of its Chairman, Christopher Thurow of Bradford County.

Mr. Thurow is Bradford County's representative on the NFBA. He is an IT professional and has been voicing his concerns regarding the NFBA project for a long time. The NFBA refused to listen and recently considered making an attempt to remove him from the NFBA board. It appears that they have had second thoughts.

During the April 26th meeting, Mr. Thurow brought up his "concerns with the network implementation and management."

The General Manager of the project is Robert Sheets of GSG. The NFBA's clerk, Faith Doyle, is an employee of GSG and reports directly to Mr. Sheets. The minutes do not include quotes and it is impossible to know what the speakers have really said and in many instances, who is saying it. Many times this works; sometimes the results are questionable.

The minutes of April 26th reflect that Mr. Thurow discussed issues he has with GSG, the General Manager of the project. "The general manager has never built a project like this in his opinion and Chairman Thurow has never felt GSG had the expertise to do so. Chairman Thurow is concerned that there has [had] been several engineers let go from the project."

"Chairman Thurow states that for the last 1.5 years he has been making decision[s] he didn’t want to make. He has concerns across both NFBA and FRBA and didn’t want to call the meeting, but will look to the board chairman to make changes to the purchasing policy..."

"The project is stumbling along"

"Chairman Thurow has talked to the engineers and vendors... He is concerned that the project is stumbling along..." "Chairman Thurow stated he is here to go over specific financial deficiencies. That the general manager is judge, jury and executioner and signs his own pay check and he can’t do that."

Lake City's City Manager, Wendell Johnson, at the same meeting reportedly said something to the effect that "the level of concern being expressed is questionable."

Last month on August 23rd, Wendell Johnson told the NFBA, "We got all these problems and none of these board members sittin at this table know about it except Mr. Thurow."

The minutes of the August 23d meeting have been pulled from the agenda for today's September 14th meeting.

Today, Wendell Johnson is scheduled to be nominated to be the NFBA's financial administrator and treasurer. It is unknown if Mr. Johnson understands why the Feds have stopped financing the project and many of the other things that have gone on.

Jacobs Engineering - White night or the Prince of Darkness

Also scheduled on today's agenda is the removal of Rapid Systems from most of the NFBA project.

Evaluating Rapid Systems is a firm brought in from California, Jacobs Engineering. Jacobs has a worldwide reputation, but apparently has no experience in building up and running wireless broadband networks. If it does, it is not mentioned on their website.

Recently, in a report prepared for GSG and the NFBA, Jacobs, working only with information supplied by GSG, ripped Rapid Systems, the folks that actually build and operate wireless broadband networks, never going to them to confirm GSG's charges or get the rest of the story.

At every opportunity that they could, their report showed that Rapid Systems was deficient, deficiencies that clearly turned out to be false. Deficiencies that if accurate are reputation busters.

With very limited time, Rapid Systems enlightened Jacobs at the Operations Committee Meeting that was held last Thursday, September 8th, where it was publically discovered that Jacobs never went to Rapid to verify anything that GSG had told them.

The minutes for that meeting – they are nonexistent

Important discussions, revelations and decisions took place at the September 8th meeting. There are no minutes for the full NFBA board to review in their decision making process today.

Jacobs and Rapid are meeting in Tampa this morning. Jacobs claims to be a firm of high integrity. They will have the opportunity to set the record straight this afternoon in Live Oak, where based on their recommendations, the NFBA will decide whether or not to award them much of the work Rapid Systems was doing and continues to finance out of their own pockets. 

Rapid's CFO, Denise Hamilton, estimates that Rapid is almost $500,000 out of pocket to keep the project running while the Fed's are holding the money. Ms. Hamilton told the Observer, "We told the NFBA we would keep the project running and keep the folks working, while this works itself out. We are a company that relies on our integrity. Our word is our bond."

On April 26, 2011, GSG's Faith Doyle's minutes of that days Operations Committee meeting stated the following. The speaker is apparently GSG's sole owner and the Project General Manager, Robert Sheets:

He has no issues with Rapid Systems as the people we reached out to in tough times and they continue to deliver on a tough project that has issues everyday some minor and some major and some not addressed, but there is no lack of support for Rapid Systems. They need to know there is no lack of confidence with them. Concerning the separation of duties Mr. Sheets cautioned to be careful when you cut the baby in half. Having Rapid Systems providing you directly with information should be no problem. We are here to create a utility and will do whatever the board instructs us to do. We are the general manager. We welcome changes but all should be cautious on dividing responsibilities. (Emphasis added by the Observer)

Epilogue

This is one of the most valuable projects to ever come along to rural North Central Florida, an area, which for generations has been racked by good ol' boy cronyism, poor schools and almost no economic development. This project, funded by all of the American people, will allow poor families and businesses to become part of the high speed world.

It should be obvious to the untrained eye that it has been badly managed and is behind schedule. That is not the fault of the folks that will benefit from it.

It is fashionable today to rail against government and to think that all business and politicians are out to screw somebody. In this story there are good guys: Rapid Systems, Bradford County's Christopher Thurow, Crystie Cary and the whistle blowers that are speaking with the Feds,  and yes the Feds -- the NTIA and the OIG.

For the folks in North Central Florida and all Americans, it is important that the Federal Government do its job and if wrongful acts have been committed, they should be punished.

Hopefully the Feds will remember, you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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