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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Nothing plus nothing

At today's E-Rate Modernization Workshop, I heard another justification for consortia: "aggregation of expertise."  At first blush, it seemed like a good reason to create a consortium, but then I thought about it.

Technology expertise does not aggregate all that well.  I thought of all the libraries in NJ: there are hundreds of them.  In general, they do not have a technology professional on the staff; when your total staff is 10, you have 15 computers and one access point, it doesn't make sense to pay for a full-time tech person.  And since few of them have many locations, there is even less expertise on wide-area networking.  If you excluded the 10 largest library systems, the aggregate wide-area networking expertise of the remaining libraries would be zero.  NJ has a statewide library network (kind of) because of the expertise of a single person at the State Library.  (With a little help from an E-Rate consultant.)

We did hear a couple of stories of statewide networks which probably got lower pricing because of their expertise in both technology and the marketplace.  (We also heard from one consortium that had to break up in order to get the best pricing, but that belongs in a different rant.)  But the expertise was not aggregated.  Those networks leveraged the existing expertise of the state agency.  I'm not just splitting hairs here.  There are two reasons the difference between aggregating and leveraging is important:
  1. "Aggregating" makes it sound like everyone pitches in.  In fact, the state agency pitches in, and everyone benefits.  Some organization has to supply the services of a very expensive asset (the expertise required to engineer a WAN is not cheap).  A state agency may be willing to do that for free, and some consortium leads have figured out ways to get a percentage to cover the cost of that asset, but if a bunch of applicants want to band together, one of them has to share a costly asset for nothing.
  2. And that assumes that one of the members had such a person to share.  If you aggregated the expertise of all the charter schools in NJ, you would not have the expertise necessary to get good pricing on a network to connect them all.  If you bring together 100 people who know nothing about WAN engineering and costs, the aggregate is zero.  You can't create expertise by aggregating the opinions of non-experts.  The kind of technology know-how you need to cost-effectively bring bandwidth to a consortium is not something you can get from crowdsourcing.
I'll use an analogy that toots my own horn, if you don't mind.  I am a Certified E-Rate Management Professional, and I've submitted (or overseen the submission of) hundreds of E-Rate applications.  Because this is my full-time job, I spend time on things like today's workshop, and reading every FCC appeal decision.  Here's my boast: if you aggregated the E-Rate expertise of all the employees in all the school districts in NJ, it would not equal my expertise.  600 people who each spend maybe 20 hours a year on the E-Rate just don't have the expertise of one person who has spent 2,000 hours a year on the E-Rate for over 10 years.  By the way, I wouldn't make that boast about PA or NY, because the Philadelphia and NYC school districts probably have people who spend 2,000 hours per year on the E-Rate, so it would at least be a contest.  (There was a woman from Philly at the workshop today, and she clearly understands the E-Rate really well.)

So I'm sticking with my position that the FCC should not encourage consortium purchasing.

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