NAVAJO COUNTY – There are two significant, long-standing questions regarding the future of E-Rate projects in Navajo County — what happened to the 2017-2018 application for funding, and what is the status of the county’s current application?
The federally funded E-Rate program provides state-matching funds to schools and libraries for the construction of high-speed, reliable internet connections. It is designed to assist rural areas where high speed internet is unavailable or unreliable. There are millions of dollars in funding to be gained – or lost so the E-Rate application questions are important.
The first question relates to the 2017-2018 application for funding made by Navajo-Gila County Information Technology Consortium. Everything seemed to come tumbling down when competing bidders protested the $60 million contract award to Red Rock Telecommunications. In addition, and Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the federal company that reviews applications and administers funding “determined that a Program rule violation occurred” in the application process.
Last August, Milan Eaton, the Arizona Department of Education state E-Rate director, also explained to the Independent via email that “the primary reasons for the [funding] denial have to do the with Consortium selecting a vendor that was double the price of the competition, Red Rock Telecommunication’s lack of experience in providing fiber/Wide Area Network (WAN) systems, no references and program rule violations in the bidding evaluation process.”
The second highest bidder and the first to protest the bid award was Sparklight/Cable One with a $32 million bid, half of Red Rock’s.
But, USAC gave the Navajo-Gila Consortium “an opportunity to provide additional information or explanation as to why your funding request is eligible for E-Rate discounts,” states the July 10, 2018 letter to the Consortium.
The Consortium seemed to hang their hat on this opportunity stating that their bid “… was the most cost-effective over the intended 10-year contract period” and the Consortium “used 10 years to calculate the comprehensive total cost of the bids received including construction cost and monthly recurring costs for services delivered for the 10-year term of the contract.”
The Consortium pursued the process but, to date, has not received federal or state funding. That’s when Gila County broke away from the Consortium, submitting their own application.
“We have chosen to create a Gila consortium to apply for a similar kind of large area connectivity broadband to schools and libraries in Gila County,” said Gila County Librarian Jacque Sanders last summer. “We’ve moved forward with a separate consortium.”
The Independent asked Eaton, and Navajo County Schools Superintendent Jalyn Gerlich, what happens to the old application? Does is fade away into the ethernet?
It appears that the bid protests would be a moot point if it remains unfunded by USAC. And there’s always the possibility that a funded application in the current funding cycle might also negate the old application. However, no one seems to know for sure, the default answer being “wait and see.”
Not only is the 2017-2018 application in limbo, it is also under investigation for alleged bid rigging. Last November, the Navajo County Attorney’s Office initiated an independent investigation into the Navajo-Gila County Information Technology Consortium’s bid process — but the results are not in yet.
Now, a year later, it is unclear if the investigation has had any more movement than the apparently stalled application.
The Independent reached out to the County Attorney’s office intermittently since independent investigator Keith A. Sobraske of Peak Forensics in Phoenix was hired last November to look into the allegations.
Navajo County Attorney’s Office responded promptly following each of the Independent’s status inquiries and also expressed frustration in not having answers from the investigator but investigations of this nature can be very time consuming says Deputy County Attorney Jason S. Moore.
The Navajo County Attorney’s office provided Peak Forensics’ fee schedule and stated that “… the only invoice the County has paid was for the services of a computer forensics expert hired by Mr. Sobraske,” says Moore. “That was in the amount of $4,390 and was paid to Peak Forensics. Mr. Sobranske has not billed the County for the services of Investigative Research Inc. (IRI) to date, and it is my understanding after speaking with him today that he does not plan to do so until the investigation is complete and we have received a report.”
Moore also informed the Independent that Sobraske’s initial estimate for the cost of the investigation was in the range of $10,000.
The second question regarding the status of Navajo County’s new application is much simpler. It boils down to a waiting game of “when” and “if” the revamped, 2018-2019 Navajo County E-Rate application will be funded by USAC who is reviews the applications and administers funding.
In sharp contrast to the $60 million Red Rock Telecommunications bid, the 2018-2019 Navajo County application is for $537,000.
If funded, the bid will be awarded to ENA Technologies and is intended to connect schools and libraries in Navajo County only. It’s far less comprehensive in scope than the massive Navajo-Gila Consortium.
As of last week, Navajo County Superintendent of Schools Jalyn Gerlich confirmed that the Consortium is still under review by USAC. “It’s still pending … still up to USAC,” wrote Gerlich in an email to the Independent. “We’re waiting for USAC to act and we’re focusing on answering questions on the 2019 proposal.”
“The PIA (application review) process is slow,” says Eaton who has guided Arizona school and library districts through the E-Rate application process for several years. Funding has been awarded to schools as small as Agua Fria High School District which serves about 7,600 students, to the Yavapai County Consortium which serves approximately 26,000 students.
“USAC is still asking clarifying questions so we’re still on track for the 2018-2019 submission,” confirms Eaton. “It just takes time at this point.”