In the near future, a small pipe packed with fiber optic cable will run along much of U.S. Route 250 West of Charlottesville. 

It’s the next phase of a multiyear project to extend the private data network of the area’s third largest business.  By connecting its offices in Crozet and Charlottesville, it can bypass area telecommunications companies and pocket the savings. 

Vince Scheivert, the chief information officer for Albemarle County Public Schools, said the decision reflects the “transformation of analog media to digital media.”

“The things that were once paper-based, the things that were once TV-based, the things that were once phone-based are now data-based,” said Scheivert.  “We are seeing the convergence of voice, video and data all on a single network.”

Scheivert has developed a plan he says will greatly improve the school division’s computer network and Internet connectivity, all while reducing recurring operational costs.

However, one Charlottesville Internet Service Provider is questioning why the school division is building a private network of its own, placing new wires on top of existing ones being leased, and potentially missing a key opportunity to fund broadband Internet not only to schools, but also to the people of rural Albemarle.

“It’s good we have someone in our schools fighting for a fast network,” said Baylor Fooks, co-owner of Charlottesville-based Blue Ridge Internetworks. “But everything else about this stinks.”

Fooks hopes Albemarle can change course by leveraging public-private partnerships, insisting on competitive bids for technology, and refocusing the role of local government as it seeks to deliver broadband Internet connections to homes, schools and businesses.

A vendor bid like no other

Compared to the early days of the World Wide Web, the online resources we access today require more bandwidth for users at home, at work or on the go.  We are streaming videos, uploading photos and telecommuting. 

That includes our public schools where Internet and multimedia resources have become essential in the classroom for 21st century learning.

Local telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers bid to install and operate the infrastructure to deliver these services, increasingly over fiber optic cables and wireless antennas.

Michael Culp is Scheivert’s counterpart in Albemarle County local government where he runs a separate technology program that includes networking the county office buildings to courts, the emergency communications center and fire stations.

Culp and Scheivert have teamed up to back a $900,000 initiative in the county’s current capital improvement program to lay fiber optic cable between the school’s central data center and the school campuses around Western Albemarle and Monticello High School.

Both parts of local government want to transition away from leasing network access and toward a private fiber network of their own.

Blue Ridge Internetworks is known for building the network that provides wireless Internet on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.  Before that project, it was a leading Internet Service Provider for numerous downtown businesses.  In 2013, it was selected as one of the firms to build out Nelson County’s rural broadband network.

However, when Albemarle awarded CenturyLink
four E-rate networking, Internet and telephone
contracts in February and March, without receiving
any other competitive bids, Fooks was not pleased.

For the past year, Blue Ridge Internetworks has been trying to get information about the school division’s technology plans in order to bid on services which the school division will get reimbursed through the federal E-rate program. 

The federal government collects money in the form of Universal Service fees charged on consumer phone bills and distributes those funds to eligible schools and libraries for their telecommunication projects.

However, when Albemarle awarded CenturyLink four E-rate networking, Internet and telephone contracts in February and March, without receiving any other competitive bids, Fooks was not pleased.

“We met with Vince [Scheivert ] and Mike Culp and at that time they told us they had funding to build the fiber network for the schools, which made us think the E-rate application was seeking funding to build the fiber network,” said Fooks about a meeting that took place in December.

In a review by Charlottesville Tomorrow of emails between the school division and Blue Ridge Internetworks, one source of confusion around the E-rate opportunity appears to be that multiple networking projects were on the table.

The three Albemarle County networks being planned simultaneously include a private network that would be owned by the schools for its future needs, Culp’s network for local government, and a third legacy network leasing infrastructure from CenturyLink.

Scheivert said only the latter is eligible for E-rate funding, and the schools need it to maintain services until the school division’s new fiber network is operational.  Fooks, however, said it was difficult to get a straight answer from school staff.

“We were led to believe in all of our conversations and communications that the E-rate project was building a network rather than leasing services from a provider,” said Fooks.

While Fooks was angling toward being the contractor of choice for the new private fiber installation, Albemarle County was negotiating for more than eight months with CenturyLink to renew leases on its existing wide area network and Internet connections.

“CenturyLink appreciates the long-term partnership that we’ve had with Albemarle County,” said Simone Alley, CenturyLink’s market development manager, in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “The implementation of the 10 gigabits per second network to each of the Albemarle County schools is an example of how we are working together to pursue a commitment of excellence with their telecommunications experience.”

Fooks said the E-rate contracts, totaling about $408,000 for CenturyLink, were for services his company, and others, would have liked to have bid on, but no request for proposals was issued.

“There’s no way any of us had the details to bid on the project,” said Fooks.  “There was no description or narrative with desired speeds, terms and topology.  All the things that would normally appear in and RFP.”

“It was up to each bidder to ask questions and hope to get answers,” Fooks added.  “That puts CenturyLink in a pretty unique position since they were already providing the service.”

“I think it was a fair process and everyone
knew what our minimum requirements were
to have service running by July 1 at 26 school
sites,” said Scheivert.

Scheivert maintains Blue Ridge Internetworks had access to the same E-rate materials as CenturyLink, and he says he was surprised that the firm didn’t bid on at least the Internet services.

“For our phone, Internet and WAN services, we annually put out the requirements and then people respond back if they can provide the service,” Scheivert said. 

Scheivert added that both the school board attorney and the county’s head of purchasing said a separate RFP was unnecessary.

“I think it was a fair process and everyone knew what our minimum requirements were to have service running by July 1 at 26 school sites,” said Scheivert.

Seeking the greatest return on investment

Culp said he has received feedback from vendors concerned that the new fiber network will put the county in competition with private enterprise. 

“A lot of people are concerned we are taking private industry out of the equation,” Culp said.  “We did eight months of negotiations with CenturyLink before we pulled the plug and decided to move forward [with a private network].”

While CenturyLink won a five-year contract with the schools, it has another contract up for renewal with local government in November.  Culp hopes he can eventually piggyback on the school division’s new fiber to upgrade local government’s connections. 

“We have to decide soon which way we are going,” Culp said.  “We have an option for a one year renewal.  My preference would be to get us over to the school side.”

Scheivert uses a golf analogy to explain the benefits.

“I can’t think of a place where we don’t have a school that’s within a 3-iron shot of a fire house,” Scheivert said.  “[Culp’s] trying to increase services without increasing costs.”

“From a return on investment perspective we are all very supportive of fiber connections between the schools,” said Culp.  “We are taking it one step at a time.  We need to ensure there is a ROI and once we are comfortable with amount of traffic and utilization, we are hoping that as they run by fire stations, we’d invest [to connect them to the network].”

Scheivert and Culp both see significant financial benefits in a private fiber network – Albemarle will be paying less and less to CenturyLink.

“They’re not happy but they understand it,” said Scheivert.  “Here’s where CenturyLink and I have been able to maintain a solid relationship.  We still need access to the Internet and we have gone from a 250 megabit connection to the Internet for the last five years to today, where we have a 2 gigabit Internet connection.  We are always going to need to be able to partner with someone who has the capability to provide us with robust access to the Internet.”

Other firms missed the opportunity to bid on the Internet piece as that was also locked up in a five-year contract with CenturyLink in the E-rate applications.

Fooks said he was “extremely surprised” at the Internet deal, but he acknowledges CenturyLink has no shortage of bandwidth to offer on its network.  He questions whether Albemarle bought too much.

“Two gigabit would be 10 times as much as we provide a whole private college in the state,” Fooks said.  “And college users tend to use the Internet more hours in a day.”

“A prudent way to purchase bandwidth is to assess what you are using, how it’s being used, and what you will need in the near future,” Fooks added.

From the school division’s perspective, the contracts with CenturyLink and the constructing of its own fiber network are smart long terms investments.

“This gives us a 50-year capability of being able to expand services,” said Scheivert.  “So with a small minor investment that doesn’t increase operational expenses, we now have the ability to continually expand services for easily the next 50 years.”

Fooks says the schools could have gotten an even better deal if the E-rate projects had been put out to bid.  Further, as it builds a new network, it should do so thinking about more than just classrooms.

“The contract that they have with CenturyLink is good,” said Fooks.  “I am happy to live an in area where schools have excellent connectivity, but if county funds are going to be used to construct a network, it should be county owned so it can be used to improve the significant broadband challenges in the county.”

Coming tomorrow: PART II – Albemarle County evaluates its broadband future