Solutions Library

Request for information

Expanding Broadband Access

Many people in the U.S. take high-speed internet service (broadband) for granted, but it’s a necessity for businesses, community services, and individuals who work from home. Most of Maine’s remote coastal communities and islands don’t have access to fast, reliable internet, which puts these communities on the wrong side of the digital divide and out of contact with customers, clients, and visitors. The lack of broadband negatively affects everyone: businesses, fishermen, students, municipal services, residents, and visitors. Many coastal and island residents are working together to solve this problem by identifying and implementing improvements to infrastructure to support broadband, while raising awareness of the challenge and the ways that broadband can be used to improve business efficiency, workforce development, and quality of life.

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An RFI or RFP process can provide more options for improving connectivity.

Once you have a handle on (most of) your community’s broadband goals and existing infrastructure, using a Request-For-Information (RFI) process is a great way to solicit creative solutions to leveraging that existing infrastructure and improving internet connectivity. If you’ve determined the details of the broadband project you want to undertake and are seeking bids for construction of new infrastructure, then you may choose to use a Request For Proposals (RFP). An RFP implies there will be a contract on a broadband project through the bid process, and is often, but not always, written to be binding. As such, RFPs ask for more financial information than an RFIs. If your community is seeking to garner creative solutions, which might be used to help you choose a company for an eventual engineered infrastructure design, then (at least starting with) an RFI may work better. RFI’s are also better if you want to keep the option open of going straight into negotiations with a company rather than doing a bid process for choosing a company.

 

IMPLEMENTATION STEPS

Design the RFI (or RFP)

  • Thoughtfully outline the way the questions are asked or information is requested in the RFI so as to allow you to compare apples to apples when reviewing the responses. Specifically state that responses must address the sections in order and that all supporting materials are provided in appropriate sections.
  • Be clear about what information or responses are required, versus any questions that are optional or where there is room for creativity in responses.

Content to include

  • Be specific about the community. Highlight its goals, miles of road, number of premises, and existing infrastructure; limitations of doing a project, both physical (e.g., ferry) and political (e.g., tower ordinances); ownership and number of utility poles; and any assets or information you can provide potential respondents.
  • For RFIs, avoid specificity in the project. Avoid narrowly defining internet speed, limiting technology options, or setting subscription prices. Explain (strongly imply) the minimum speed or other deliverables that are required in order to meet the community goals, which are explicitly stated. Be open to all technology responses that can meet those goals. Encourage respondents to propose financial models that allow for low/affordable/comparable subscription prices.
  • For RFIs, imply or explain—and for RFPs, clearly state—how much the community is contributing. Don’t commit to anything, but address investigation of funding sources, willingness to do outreach to affect subscription rates, potential for partnership to reduce subscription prices, etc. Be clear about the community’s expectations in a partnership, e.g., ownership model, and whether or not there’s openness to variations on that ownership model.

 

Posting and reviewing

  • Publicly post the RFI or RFP is often, if not always, required for grant funding, by local laws, or just good ethics. In addition to using the town’s website, consider emailing potential respondents you know exist in the area. Consider sharing the town’s website link or attached RFI/RFP in emails to broader stakeholders who can also spread the word. This can help increase the potential number of respondents.
  • Ensure transparency of the process, again especially for grant seeking. Consider using the town website to post updates and document the process to show that it is equitable, etc.
  • Additional insurances should be in place for an RFP or bid process, e.g., opening bids at a public meeting all at once. Check with your local government to ensure compliance with local charters, laws, and policies.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Legalese. Both RFIs and RFPs should be reviewed by the town’s legal adviser, but this usually isn’t a requirement of at least RFIs. You’ll want to check with a town official who knows, or review town charter/bylaws.
  • Coordination. Do you want to provide the opportunity for potential respondents to ask clarifying questions (i.e., hold an optional conference call) on the RFI/RFP shortly after issuing it? It is typical to request submission of questions a couple of weeks before closing the RFI/RFP, and you would post answers at least a week before the RFI/RFP is closed. Both modes of communication with potential respondents require planned coordination by the community: Decide well in advance who will receive all questions, and decide who will be involved in developing answers, but only one individual should be delegated the task of responding to questions, to ensure consistency in responses. All responses given should be made available to all potential respondents, e.g., posted on the town’s webpage for the RFI/RFP process.
  • Time. This process takes a lot of time and communication among many individuals. Some communities chose to appoint someone outside the broadband working group or even hire a firm to do the RFI/RFP process. While that provides the community additional resources for this process, it requires you to build in extra time for back-and-forth communication with that individual or firm. Be very clear on expectations, and the roles and responsibilities of the firm versus the town or of the individual versus the working group.

 

RESULTS

  • The Town of Cranberry Isles to solicit creative options for an infrastructure network that would meet its community goals. The working group used a the RFI responses, and entered right into negotiations for an infrastructure design and financial model for their broadband project. In 2017, the town voted to move forward with building a fiber-wireless network, a creative solution identified by the RFI process.
  • Long Island, Maine, to determine interest from internet service providers in designing, constructing, and/or operating a new infrastructure network to meet the community’s goals. The RFI specifically requested financial models to allow for the town to recoup the upfront costs contributed to the project. Responses to the RFI provided the broadband committee valuable information on the obstacles to such a financial model. The broadband committee has begun discussions with neighboring islands on exploring possible regional solutions that may provide efficiencies to reduce the cost of an infrastructure build-out.

Originally published February 2017

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