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Saturday, 2.07.2022
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After losing its top bidder, New Orleans wants to reissue a new RFP for a smart city plan that would address the city's digital divide, but Cox Business believes it should automatically get the contract.

Hours after New Orleans said it would be issuing a new solicitation for a multi-million dollar "smart city" project in light of the top bidder's decision to pull out of the project, the second-place bidder said not so fast.

Cox Business, a subsidiary of cable giant Cox Communications, New Orleans' main Internet service provider, sent a letter to the city arguing that it should be next in line to take on the job of expanding broadband access and installing Internet-connected infrastructure throughout the city.

That position could thrust into doubt the city's next step on the broadband plan. The city had previously rejected Cox's plan as far too costly, but in its Monday email, Cox told the city's chief procurement officer that it should get to negotiate a deal based on the request for proposals.

"As the second-highest responsive respondent on the smart city RFP, and pursuant to the terms of the RFP itself, Cox is entitled to be awarded the contract, and looks forward to working with the city toward developing its smart city program," the company said.

A RARE HEARING

The apparent dispute between Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration and Cox comes as the City Council is preparing to grill one of the mayor's top aides at a special meeting on Wednesday, which appears to be the first time it has held a similar hearing since 1988.

The council has subpoenaed Jonathan Rhodes, director of the Mayor's Office of Utilities, to discuss his role in crafting the technology solicitation issued in April 2021.

In a statement Monday, the city said it is attempting to address the wide gap in Internet access across racial groups that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Black New Orleanians are connected to the Internet at far lower rates than their white counterparts. About 52% of households in New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward lack Internet access, whereas nearly 100% of families Uptown and in the Garden District have reliable connectivity," said the Mayor's Office spokesperson, Melissa Newell. "A digital divide separates rich from poor and black from white, and as the pandemic raged, our Administration needed to take action."

Newell said that among other goals, the administration hoped the project would "provide free and affordable Internet in our most vulnerable communities at no additional cost to the City."

CONTRACT QUESTIONS

Yet critics, including Cox, have said the winning consortium's proposal was skimpy on details about how residents would benefit.

Cox has also lobbed complaints about alleged contract-steering that have drawn the attention of the City Council. The consortium's members included the telecom giant Qualcomm, the investment firm JLC Infrastructure and other vendors, including numerous local businesses.

Last week, it emerged that Rhodes had provided what the city called "pro bono" advice to Qualcomm on a smart city plan in Los Angeles through a private company he controls, at the same time that he was preparing New Orleans' smart city solicitation.

In the Monday email, Cox Vice President Leigh King said he was aware of the ongoing investigation of Rhodes' role in the solicitation process and pledged his cooperation.

COX ANGLES FOR DEAL

Cox's claim that it is "entitled" to a contract with the city appears to be at odds with the city's general position on solicitations. Under a 2020 executive order from Cantrell, the city says that if contract talks with a first-place bidder break down, it can switch to negotiations with a second-place bidder or cancel the procurement process outright.

Prior to the consortium's exit from the smart city plan, Cox had filed a protest of the city's decision to grant the right to negotiate a contract to Smart+Connected NOLA. In a formal response to Cox's protest, which was ultimately denied, Rhodes was highly critical of Cox's plan.

Rhodes said Cox's plan could have cost up to $150 million and failed to include local disadvantaged business enterprises as partners. In contrast, he said, the consortium had promised to install Internet-connected street lights and traffic signals at no upfront cost to the city.

Under Smart+Connected's plan, the city would have paid the consortium back for its investments with the money saved through efficiencies like "smart" street lighting over time.

"Cox proposed a fiber solution at a cost of $69 million to the city, staggeringly out of step with the type of cost-neutral approach the City was looking for," Rhodes said. "In fact, all of Cox's proposed 'solutions' would come at great cost to the City."

Cox, by contrast, said the consortium only managed to make its plan cost-neutral for the city by omitting a plan to build out the expensive fiber network that appeared to be required under the city's solicitation.

If Cox had known that fiber wasn't required, the company said that it would have presented a much different plan with "drastically lower costs."

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Matt Sledge

Quelle/Source: Government Technology, 28.04.2022

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