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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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North Florida Broadband Authority: Redefining "Good Business Sense?"

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The North Florida Broadband Authority did not disappoint at its Friday morning, October 21, 2011 emergency meeting when, acting with its usual 12th hour policy of last moment agenda preparation, NFBA Chairman, Jefferson County's Stephen Fulford, asked the Authority Board to remove broadband experts Rapid Systems from the federally funded broadband project. This move, misrepresented by the Chairman and rubber stamped by the Authority Board is guaranteed to disrupt the project and waste hundreds of thousands of federal stimulus dollars. It is yet another example of the bungling of this important project, which caused the feds to ask for the resignations of three major Tallahassee firms and to shut the project down for over a month.

The NFBA's Chairman, Stephen Fulford sprung removal of Rapid Systems on the NFBA Board almost without warning, using the same standard operating procedure used by Government Services Group (GSG) since this reporter has been following the story. Last minute agendas and voluminous handouts rule the day. GSG e-mailed the agenda to the board members and interested parties at 10:56 PM the evening before the next day's 11 a.m. meeting.

A transcript of the NFBA's removal of Rapid Systems can be found here.

Almost an hour into the meeting the removal of Rapid Systems from the project "for convenience" came up on the docket.

Chairman Fulford told the NFBA board, "... It's an item that I have weighed heavily on for a while. This was put on here at my request. Given the status we're in with the transition, it makes good business sense to consider this termination for convenience with Rapid Systems."

Pat O'Neal of Cedar Key asked, "Have we vetted this at all with the NTIA?"

Chairman Fulford responded, "We have."

Wendell Johnson of Lake City asked, "Is Rapid Systems aware that this is being considered today?"

Chairman Fulford responded, "I don't think so."

Chris Voehl, representing Rapid Systems told the board, "Our understanding from attending the CAP [Corrective Action Plan] response and transition meeting, Wednesday, was that the recommendation of that group and yourself included, Wendell, would be to echo what Jacobs had recommended -- is that we would be making (train goes by) a mistake to terminate our contract and I believe what you said also was that moving all the equipment would be cost prohibitive and our offer to the board to assist during the transition period ... we would be willing and able to assist the NFBA in their transition."

Chairman Fulford responded, "I don't think Jacobs has made a recommendation one way or another on this..."

On October 6, 2011, Jacobs Engineering's lead NFBA contact, Jeff Purdy, recommended leaving Rapid Systems on the job. Chairman Fulford was sitting one seat away when Mr. Purdy said in part, "They are doing some things that are specific to what they do and if we don't include that I think it would be a considerable mistake." Read the story here.

The removal of Rapid Systems from the NFBA project will cause chaos. Is this "good business sense?"

There are 96 site permits that Rapid Systems obtained. According to a spokesperson from Rapid Systems it appears that these sites are going to have to be re-permitted. Depending on the municipalities, this could take at least a month and untold hours of appointments and driving around on the part of Jacobs Engineering, who may have to resubmit everything. The original permitting took two months.

The way things are presently laying out, Jacobs Engineering is going to be the Project Management Office, Quality Assurance, the General Contractor and the Consulting Engineers. Nobody has explained who is going to be watching Jacobs.

There are risks involved in moving the inventory

Rapid Systems has millions of dollars of inventory, some of which is highly sensitive electronic equipment. This equipment is at risk of being damaged every time it is moved. The equipment that is presently warehoused in Rapid Systems warehouses has been carefully organized, assembled when necessary, tested and is ready to be installed as is needed on the job sites.

Moving this equipment is an unnecessary and high risk endeavor.

Chris Voehl of Rapid Systems estimates a minimum of 20 tractor-trailers will be necessary to move the presently warehoused equipment at a cost approximately $1000 a load. Mr. Voehl said the truckers may charge a premium because of the short notice.

Mr. Voehl added, "Because of the nature of the high-tech electronics in many of the components, while there is not great risk once it is installed, stationary on the towers, the risk lies in moving it unnecessarily."

Small contractors do not trust the NFBA

As reported previously by the Observer, many of the small contractors on the NFBA project have been devastated by the lack of timely payments for work they have completed. It is not clear how many of these contractors will go back to work for the NFBA unless they are paid in advance or even if they are, will go back to work for them at all.

Epilogue

NFBA Chairman, Stephen Fulford, called the removal of Rapid Systems, the only company on the project that builds wireless broadband systems "good business sense." The rest of the NFBA board agreed.

Moving the inventory, testing it both before and after it is transported, and then re-inventorying it so that it is ready for deployment may well cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As the conversation drew to a close, Chairman Fulford told the NFBA board, "I think professionally it's just what's in the best interest of the project. Ya know -- from a professional position."

A few moments later the board unanimously voted to remove Rapid Systems from the project. 

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

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