You’ve seen this show on MTV, The Real World, right? They take a handful of overly attractive twentysomethings, put them up in a designer home in the hippest part of a big city, and videotape their day-to-day activities. So very realistic. By contrast, take my routine this morning, filled with such scandalous and explicit activities as reading the paper, having a cup of coffee, taking the dog out, opening a new bar of soap, and OH MY GOODNESS COULD THIS GET ANY MORE BORING?!? But that’s what makes The Real World effective (if not inane) television – it isn’t like anyone’s real life, and as a result, it’s entertaining.
I’m starting to wonder if some MTV producers have recently taken positions at USAC. That’s the only explanation I can muster for some of the recent competitive bidding guidance that has been published. Take the December 3 News Brief, for example. Apparently listing “Brand X” equipment on a Form 470 is anticompetitive, while “Brand X or equivalent” passes with flying colors. “Or equivalent?” Really? So the line between competitive bidding violations and compliant procurement is a phrase that is itself 100% subjective? Could we at least get a general definition of how USAC is going to define equivalency? If Brand X equipment is painted green, but Brand Y only comes in standard beige, does that make them no longer equivalent?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a fervent supporter of a fair and open competitive bidding process, and it is, after all, a cornerstone of the E-rate program. So I get it that USAC wants to ensure that all vendors and equipment manufacturers have a fair chance of winning a bid for an E-rate funded project. But in the real world, standardization on a particular manufacturer is common practice. Have you ever noticed how the majority of the police cars in your city are the same make and model? The city didn’t set it up that way because of a long-standing Chevy vs. Ford grudge match. By standardizing on a make and model, the ongoing maintenance and operations costs for running police cars decreases dramatically. Think about it – if all the cars use the same tires, oil filters, and parts, we can buy in mass quantities, saving money. Plus, we only have to train our mechanics to service one type of car, which if nothing else gives us a chance to significantly increase operational efficiency.
Municipalities, applicants and independent research all point to the benefits of standardization. Even looking at the USAC procurement webpage, you can see that USAC sees the benefit of standardization. Is this another example of “Do as I say, not as I do”? This isn’t the first time USAC has seen the light, but inexplicably decided to keep applicants in the dark.
Modern data networks – even small ones – are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Between the convergence of voice, video, data, and other traffic on the IP network and the increasing number of data-hungry devices that hang off the endpoints, the amount of time spent configuring, tweaking, and optimizing the performance of the IP network is significant. And for each configuration setting or minor tweak you have to make in order to get something working properly on your Brand X network, the chances are almost certain that you’ll have to reconfigure your Brand Y network as well. Except that the software, terminology, and nuances of both brands are drastically different. So we have to become experts in each brand’s peculiarities – a process that consumes time and money – and heaven help us if both brands’ networks actually need to speak to each other!
Manufacturer standardization in data networks is not anticompetitive behavior. In fact, it promotes cost-effectiveness, organizational efficiency, and IT administrative sanity. It is, in fact, a practical necessity.
Given this, USAC needs to reconsider its recent competitive bidding guidance. Instead of putting yet another regulatory hurdle in front of our school district IT and E-rate administrators, why not give them a toolbox that allows them to standardize on solutions that meet their organizational objectives and then helps them to locate the most cost-effective way of accomplishing them?
The spirit of competition remains alive and our resource-strapped IT folks aren’t required to waste precious time and money learning the inner workings of every brand of networking equipment on the market. But hey, I guess funding denials based on petty criteria and forced inefficiencies are much more entertaining than, say, the way things work in the real world.