The RFP must have read something like this: “Prestigious university seeks multiple cell phone carriers to pay for the privilege of providing service to university students, faculty, staff, and guests in residence halls, buildings, and outdoor locations. Prefer not to have multiple antennas peppering our landscape.”
Sound far-fetched? Not really.
In 2006, officials at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in Charlottesville really did issue an RFP that accomplished all of the above conditions, a feat that brought them a NACUBO 2010 Innovation Award.
“Cellular telephone technology continues to expand, but its reliability is often hampered by poor radio frequency signal strength,” says Michael N. Warlick, senior buyer, procurement services, U.Va. “We were particularly troubled by the signal strength in key facilities, such as student residence halls, and by capacity issues at venues hosting large concerts or sporting events. Our community and guests expect their cellular devices to operate without problems, regardless of the size of the crowd.”
Warlick, who worked with the information technology department to implement the campus cell phone system, recently answeredBusiness Officer’s questions about the process.
What is the single most innovative aspect of your project? The university didn’t have to pay a dime to build the $4.5 million system. That’s the best part. We did initially have to pay for the fees associated with the system integrator and for portions of the system to be built. Fortunately, after the first three carriers signed on and paid $1.5 million each, we could fund the project completely from the fees paid by the wireless carriers accessing the system.
Plus, we managed to keep the system carrier-neutral. If we had been willing to provide one carrier with exclusivity, our job would have been easier, but we wanted our faculty, staff, and students to have choices in their cell phone service providers. We now have several wireless carriers providing excellent coverage in the residence halls, our sporting venues, and a few other key buildings.
Any plans for expansion? Other wireless carriers can still join the system. The current carriers pay rent for their individual equipment that is located on the U.Va. campus. The money from this rent may be used to expand the system to other buildings on the grounds, particularly those that the carriers don’t have much interest in paying to build.
What’s the takeaway for other institutions? They can piggyback off of our agreement with Longent, the system integrator, so they don’t have to issue their own RFPs.
Did you ever have any doubts that the plan would fall into place? We encountered a few anxious moments when we were signing up the carriers. Had we been unable to sign three carriers paying $1.5 million each, the project might not have been completed. However, we had researched the local wireless market and determined that local carriers were interested in enhanced coverage on U.Va. grounds.
How long did the negotiations take? Negotiations with the carriers took longer than we anticipated because of the economy and mergers. For example, Alltel was the first carrier to sign up, followed by AT&T. During this time, Verizon had just started setting up operations in the Charlottesville area, and we were very confident it would join. However, Verizon then ended up acquiring Alltel, which meant we no longer had the third carrier. It then took another six months to reach agreement with T-Mobile.
In April 2009, with three carriers on board, we finally had the funds to complete the project.
When did you start the process? We hired Longent in June 2007 through an RFP process. We then started contacting the wireless carriers while deploying the system at the two main sporting venues—Scott Stadium and the John Paul Jones Arena. This showed the university’s commitment and allowed enhanced coverage immediately after signing the carrier. We wanted at least one wireless carrier to be operational during the football season, but due to the length of negotiations and the lead time for the carrier to order equipment, this did not happen.
Although we occasionally wondered if we could continue the project without absorbing the cost, we felt confident that signing the first carrier would cause the others to sign up. Fortunately, this proved to be true.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, is writing the articles in the “Elegant Solutions” series. She covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.