I often show up at a mandatory e-rate walkthrough and find the school technical director is not really sure how to conduct the walkthrough. The director may be new to schools, they may have just gotten a promotion to the position, or the school may be small enough not to have a dedicated IT person and the staff member assigned to conduct the walkthrough doesn’t have experience at such things. Most schools only do an e-rate site visit one or two times in the 5-year e-rate cycle, so they may not have much institutional knowledge or experience with these important tasks.

Typical e-rate walkthrough questions

The person assigned to conduct the walkthrough may have a lot of questions, and the guidelines provided by USAC (Universal Service Access Company) are not clear on how to conduct these walkthroughs. Typical questions I hear are:

  • Does the school take each vendor on an individual tour?
  • Does the school allow vendors to show up throughout the day and just take whoever is there on an individual walk-through?
  • Does the vendor wait until everyone shows up and go all at once, or take vendors in small groups as they arrive?

Important Goal: Make it fair to everyone involved

The overarching guidance from The Universal Service Access Company (USAC) is to make the process fair and equitable to all vendors involved and to encourage open and fair bidding so the school receives not necessarily the lowest price, but the best price and service possible from as many competitors as possible.

The USAC doesn’t provide strict guidelines on how to conduct a site visit or walkthrough. Your school or community or state government may provide guidelines, but to overarching guidance from USAC Is to make it a fair and open bidding process.

How to conduct a walkthrough?

There are many ways you can make a bidding process fair and open and convenient for everyone involved.

The best walkthroughs I have seen are ones where the schools set up at least two opportunities for bidders to attend, usually a few days apart. This gives vendors multiple opportunities to work their schedule so they can attend the walkthrough. The more vendors you can get to attend, they more fair the process in the eyes of the federal government.

I have seen some walkthroughs where a school just provides a block of time for a vendor to attend. This is good in some cases, especially for larger facilities, but can take quite a bit of time from your school staff.

A better approach for most busy small-school IT directors is to have a fixed time when all vendors show up at once, sign in at the front office or IT department, and then the IT Director walks the vendors through the school together as a group, showing the IT closets, access point placement, network drops needed, etc.

Provide a floor plan in advance

Providing floor plans available either in advance or at the time of the walk through is a big help for all involved. This keeps everyone on the same page and makes sure the vendors have a clear understanding of what you are wanting and where each drop will be located. This reduces confusion and makes for more accurate, competitive bids.

Do NOT email these plans to Individual attendees. Instead, make them a part of your 470 RFP or provide them to your e-rate consultant in advance so they can post them publicly on a web site. As an alternative, provide printed floor plans at the time of the walkthrough.

Provide everyone an opportunity to sign in for the walkthrough.

Start exactly on time. Don’t start early.  Wait to give everyone an opportunity to arrive and sign in by the appointed time. You are better off erring with caution and starting a few minutes late that starting early and having a vendor complain to USAC.

If you decide to share drawings or written answers to attendees, be sure and do this via your e-rate consultants web site so that everyone has equal access to the questions, and all the bidders can see the answers.

Site Visit Recommendations Summary

  • Schedule two separate dates for site visits. This allows vendors to work in a site visit around their schedules and gives you the best opportunity to receive multiple bids on your project.
  • Pick a time for everyone to meet. This way all vendors know when they should arrive and when the site visit will begin. It is their responsibility to show up at the designated time.
  • Don’t start early. Wait to start the visit or even begin discussions about the project until the appointed time. Don’t start explaining what you want or talk specifics to vendors who arrive early. Wait until the appointed time to begin talking about your project. This ensure that you won’t get a complaint from a vendor that showed up on time but didn’t hear something important you said before the visit started.
  • Provide detailed floor plans or site drawings. This eliminates confusion and helps make sure vendors are bidding on the same thing so that you get accurate bids.
  • Make sure everyone signs in before start of walkthrough. This way you have a record of who attended. This is especially important for mandatory walkthroughs.
  • Ask vendors to submit important questions in writing. It is OK to answer questions during the walkthrough, but if they are important questions, ask the vendor to also submit the questions in writing so that you have a record of the question and a written response that goes out to all vendors. This way a vendor won’t be able to protest because “they didn’t know”.

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