Digging deep: The secrets behind successful fiber-optic project management

By Allen Powell, S&N Communications -- This article will focus on what actions you, as a municipality or project manager, can take to ensure a successful fiber-optics installation project. Specifically, we’ll take a close look at what should happen behind the scenes before you hire a fiber-optics infrastructure construction company and best practices to pursue to ensure maximum effectiveness and cost savings for your next project.

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Any fiber-optics installation project is a major undertaking. Responsibility for the oversight of everything from detailed implementation plans to community relations, ensuring sufficient materials are ordered in a timely manner to safety concerns, means an intense amount of pre-work and ongoing coordination for the life of a project.

This article will focus on what actions you, as a municipality or project manager, can take to ensure a successful fiber-optics installation project. Specifically, we’ll take a close look at what should happen behind the scenes before you hire a fiber-optics infrastructure construction company and best practices to pursue to ensure maximum effectiveness and cost savings for your next project.

Seven steps to lead you to the right company
Most municipalities use a standard pre-qualification process. Questions include where a company is located, how many crews are available, and how much equipment the company owns.

Unfortunately, these are the wrong questions to ask.

Fiber-optic companies want your business and, unless it’s their first rodeo, they know the answers you want to hear. They may tell you they have $40 million worth of capital equipment (while failing to mention the equipment is 15 years old). They’re going to assure you they provide the highest quality work (while neglecting to mention they provide no formal training program for their employees). Safety? Everyone swears a blood oath that safety is a top priority, but many times reality falls far short of that claim.

As project driver, you’re responsible for outcomes. It’s your role to take a deeper dive into the claims made by the companies vying for the work by following these seven steps.

Step #1: Ask the right questions
In the initial planning stage, you’ll send out RFIs. To obtain a 360-degree view of the companies under consideration, ask for the following information:

  • Financials. If you’re not comfortable reading financials, go to your finance people and pre-determine the key indicators for which you should be looking. For example, if debt ratio is important and you run across a company running at 65% when the industry norm is 15%, that’s a red flag.
  • References. Get on the phone and start calling. Reach out beyond the references provided to you. Ask for input on what went well during a project as well as specific examples of where the company fell short.
    Safety. Ask for OSHA violations for the last three years, federally reported Experience Modification Rates (EMR) records, and if an employee has ever been killed on the job. If the answer to that last question is “yes” (and this is not uncommon), inquire into the circumstances. Ask for the training records of the employee. If the records show the person wasn’t properly trained on power and the company had them up in the air, working in a truck, you don’t want to work with that company.
  • Miscellaneous. Ask contractors if they’ve ever had a contract terminated for a federal or state project. Ask—and this is important—“What’s your approach to a project?” Then sit back and listen. If a company comes back with “What do you mean?” and a lot of questions, that tells you they don’t have an approach. Does this matter? That’s up to you.


Step #2: Assign point values to your RFI
Set up a grading system that assigns values to the questions you ask in your RFI. This prequalifies companies based on a criteria set of values, necessities, and what’s important to you as a buyer. If EMR and OSHA reports are the most important things, assign them the highest point value. If hiring a minority-owned, women-owned, and disabled veteran-owned business enterprise (MWDVBE) is a priority, that gets the highest point value.

Be specific. Don’t just assign an x point value to an EMR. Break it down: an EMR of less than one is equal to five points, an EMR of one to two is equal to three points, etc. Assign a point value to the “What’s your approach?” question based on how important the answer is to you.

LwsandnditchwitchStep #3: Assign point values to your RFP
You’re not done yet. Once the RFIs come back, analyze them using your pre-determined points system for objectivity.

If five contractors responded, you should be able to rank them, one to five. This may or may not immediately disqualify some. For those left, send out RFPs.

Before you do, reassign point values to the questions you’ll ask. For example, several companies may have responded “no” to the RFI question, “Are you an MWDVBE?” A follow-up question would be, “What percentage of your business do you award to MWDVBEs?” If 30% of a company’s total expenditures each year fall within the minority business enterprise, that’s worth x points to you.

Step #4: Narrow the supplier pool

Based on the point values from the RFPs, narrow your initial pool to one or two suppliers with whom you’ll want to meet face-to-face. This is where you’ll talk specifics including:

  • Definitions. A supplier might say that they’ll provide minor materials while you provide major ones. Fine—just be sure you define what constitutes a “major” material. No surprises are the goal.
  • Permits. Determine what is needed and who is responsible for filing.
  • Inspections. Are joint post-construction inspections possible or will the contractor simply turn over their results?


Step #5: Look at pricing
You’ll notice we haven’t yet mentioned pricing. That’s for a good reason. We all know contracts are typically awarded based on cost. But low cost isn’t always what it appears. Suppliers are in business to make money, and low upfront costs often (very often) conceal hidden costs related to safety and crew efficiency.

Not using price parity is one of the biggest mistakes municipalities make when employing different contractors. If you’re paying Contractor A $1 per transfer and Contractor B $1.10, the more expensive contractor will get all the resources and suddenly your project is behind schedule because Contractor A can’t round up a crew. It’s another example of why the lowest price shouldn’t always win.

As project manager, you need to save money. But to maximize effectiveness and get the most bang for your buck, you’ll also need to look at more than just price. Go back to your grading system and what you determined was important to you, and let price be a part of your final decision instead of the driving factor.

Step #6: Let the contractor do the job you hired them to do

If you’ve done due diligence and selected a quality contractor, the actual construction phrase should take care of itself. Ask for updates but, for the most part, step back and allow the supplier to take the lead.

Step #7: Evaluate
At project’s end, evaluate how well the contractor did, what flowed smoothly, what challenges arose, and if any adjustments need to be made to your point system when evaluating companies for future projects.

Allen Powell
is president of S&N Communications, a provider of locating, utilities, and infrastructure construction services, with 20 field offices distributed along the U.S. East Coast. S&N has installed more than 40 million feet of fiber-optic cable and connected approximately 900,000 homes and businesses with telecom, cable, and gas service.





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