July 13, 2017
The procurement process for new land mobile radio (LMR) systems can be a formidable task for agencies modernizing their communications systems. Many LMR systems are now operating at their end of life, making the implementation of new applications increasingly complicated because technology probably has evolved dramatically since the last system upgrade. Additionally, the request for proposal (RFP) process can be time-consuming and costly, making the need to find economies and efficiencies vital to maximize taxpayer return on investment.
In most cases, separating the civil services scope, more commonly known as the site development, from the RFP can be a surprising way to save on overall project costs. In a traditional LMR RFP, the site development, backhaul network and infrastructure are all combined in search of an overarching, one-size-fits-all solution. However, not all service providers have the technical expertise to handle each of the project elements within the scope of the LMR project. In particular, organizations that specialize in site development will understand specific challenges that can prevent cost overruns and change orders. Parsing out the site development in a separate bid process can ensure that each element of scope is handled by the most qualified company with the right experience and expertise and in the most efficient manner. It places each area of expertise within the correct domain of subject matter for each particular scope. The added cost of releasing a separate RFP is minimal compared with the savings opportunity.
The Price of Convenience
Agency challenges were reflected in the Black & Veatch “2017 Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility Report,” in which reported opinions varied when survey respondents were asked to identify their preferred method for procuring a new LMR system. Hiring an LMR consultant to oversee the process, dealing directly with the radio manufacturer and using a system reseller/integrator were all within only a few percentage points of each other, indicating there is no clear industry standard.
When updating their LMR systems, agencies traditionally prepare a single RFP to solicit bids from radio technology manufacturers. A typical contract includes all phases of the project, including ancillary services such as site acquisition and environmental services. Although this approach may seem efficient from a procurement standpoint, it can lead to schedule delays, cost overruns and other inefficiencies.
Each phase of a project may require specific expertise. Traditional proposals from radio manufacturers bundle site infrastructure, backhaul network and LMR infrastructure. Site infrastructure includes towers, shelters, foundations and backup power. Backhaul networks encompass microwave and fiber-optic cable, and LMR infrastructure is comprised of switching centers, base stations, consoles, mobiles, portables and antenna systems. Although these elements are entirely interdependent, each service requires distinctive skill sets and careful sequencing and is therefore affected by different market dynamics.
The convenience of a bundled contract comes with a price premium. Radio manufacturers often subcontract services beyond the technology implementation to those with ancillary expertise. Subcontracting those functions can often lead to price markup as much as 30 percent to maintain margins for the LMR vendor.
Keeping Costs in Check
Organizations that specialize in site development have specific expertise that can keep costs controlled. Under a bundled contract, cost overruns are typically caused by contingency costs associated with execution errors or missteps in site development. Site development can be complicated, depending on geographical and technological factors, and experts in this arena best understand the financial and regulatory risks involved in site development.
Site development experts work directly with state and local government agencies and can collaborate with LMR vendors, utilities and other key stakeholders during project execution. Site acquisition and engineering designs are important technical elements in an LMR upgrade. However, delays can arise in the regulatory approval process or with poor project management. Working with a seasoned site developer can ensure that each component is managed meticulously and aggressively.
Generally speaking, cost savings are proportional to the amount of new sites being built, relative to the size of the project. Either way, working with a site development subject matter expert can give agencies a more realistic cost expectation because engineering and constructability studies can be conducted early on to create accurate cost projections.
Site Development Partner
There are several considerations in selecting the right site development specialist for an LMR project when acquiring one independently. The skills needed for site development are distinct from the skills that LMR technology providers have in-house. Partnering with an expert with the following qualifications can be extremely beneficial to keeping a project on schedule and on budget while exceeding customer expectations.
Size, scale and standards: An ideal partner has proven experience installing and upgrading communication systems and has access to a variety of resources. Familiarity with cybersecurity best practices and standards, as well as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification, are also important qualities.
Regulatory expertise: Depending on the site location, site acquisition could encompass zoning, permitting and licensing regulations. Working with a vendor that has experience obtaining regulatory licenses and has familiarity with local regulatory standards can mitigate compliance risks and schedule delays.
Stakeholder collaboration: Keeping local stakeholders aware of project details can help prevent misunderstandings on the project’s scope and its effect on the local community. Collaboration with utilities, carriers and tower leasing companies can help overcome barriers that could lead to significant delays.
Improved scheduling: Site development team can begin securing the permits, environmental studies, and engineering design to prepare sites for new equipment while the customer is in negotiations with the LMR vendor. The legacy approach delays this process until the LMR vendor is procured and is under contract.
Engineering: Certified civil, structural and electrical professional engineers, especially those who are licensed in the region, understand local conditions that could affect an LMR project. These engineers can identify potential challenges associated with tower sites early in the process. This upfront knowledge can minimize engineering complications and help meet execution deadlines.
Project management and project controls: A site development provider can identify ideal project sites that lead to optimal coverage. Site selection directly affects costs and schedules, and an experienced site development partner can analyze these factors to offer advice about the ideal scope of work.
For example, a recent LMR upgrade required a change order to move a tower to the opposite side of a road from its current location. The applicant for the permit to move the tower did not consult a site development expert. The jurisdiction approved the relocation, but the project team failed to account for soil conditions that affected the foundation in the new location. As a result, the transferred tower became compromised and it affected signal quality.
The agency client could have prevented unplanned expenses and schedule delays by consulting with a site development firm that would have evaluated the tower locations before executing the change order and would have coordinated directly with the radio manufacturer to guide the adjustment.
Sequencing the RFP Process
LMR system deployments are complicated, including elements beyond the technology component. Installations can take as little as six months or multiple years, depending on the project complexity. Separating the site development from the technology RFP is an easy, yet often overlooked, efficient way of upgrading the system.
There are many benefits to working directly with a site development expert. Price markups from change orders can be avoided by working directly with a subject matter expert who gives you a price and then stands behind it, instead of going through a radio manufacturer’s subcontracted party with multiple layers of markups and a less-defined scope of work. A qualified site development expert can also assist with planning for future tower loading from carriers or FirstNet, leading to future revenue that can offset maintenance costs — a true long-term cost savings. With multiple providers, agencies can benefit from higher-quality communication and quicker timelines.
Preethi Pillaipakkam is business director for public safety communications at Black & Veatch. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul Scutieri is Public Safety Sales Director at Black & Veatch. His email address is email@example.com.