AUGUSTA, Maine — For the third time this year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has chosen FairPoint Communications to replace the state’s emergency 911 system with an upgraded, Internet-based system that can accept emergency calls from a range of devices.
The commission’s choice of FairPoint for the $32 million contract, handed down Tuesday, comes after the commission’s two previous awards to FairPoint this year were appealed by losing bidders and overturned by state panels that heard the appeals. The commission’s latest award to FairPoint came just 11 days after the last state appeals panel threw out the second FairPoint award.
“It’s been a long and somewhat painful process,” said PUC Chairman Thomas Welch. “We’re hoping we’re coming to the end of it. We’re hoping we’ve gotten to the point where we can move forward and get in what I think will be a really good service for the people of Maine.”
The appeals panel that threw out the second FairPoint award overturned it following five days of hearings this fall where attorneys for Colorado-based Intrado and Lewiston-based Oxford Networks — two communications companies that also submitted bids for the so-called NextGen 911 contract — accused the PUC of violating the law and the terms of its own request for bids when the agency chose FairPoint.
In a 12-page decision issued Nov. 9, the three-member appeals panel didn’t accept all the arguments made by Intrado and Oxford Networks, but the panel concluded that the PUC failed to consider one key requirement in evaluating the bids: the ability for each bidder to meet the state’s desired timeline for the project.
FairPoint bid $32.4 million for the project while Intrado bid $27.8 million and Oxford bid $24.9 million.
“When we got the decision of the appeal board, it was actually quite narrow,” Welch said.
Welch said the PUC decided to reconvene its review team and rescore the existing nine proposals it had received from companies last year and adjust the scores after taking into account the timeline information.
“When it was rescored, there were a couple of little differences that came into play, but none of them that made a difference in the ultimate award,” Welch said. “In light of what the appeals board said about what we had done, basically affirming 95 percent of the decision we had made about scoring, this made the most sense to us.”
Losing bidders have until Dec. 5 to appeal the PUC’s latest decision.
But it’s hard to have faith that another appeal will result in a fair process, said Dan Grossman, director of public safety solutions for Carousel Industries of Exeter, R.I., another losing bidder.
“We’re exploring options, trying to figure out how we escalate this beyond the PUC,” Grossman said. “The governor needs to be aware of this because this is life safety, public safety and emergency services.”
The PUC was wrong to take year-old proposals and rescore them just days after the last award was thrown out, rather than start fresh by putting out a request for new bids, he said. The PUC also didn’t inform bidders of its plan to rescore their existing proposals.
“So much time has passed, it’s questionable whose bids are even still valid,” he said. “More advantageous technology is available and not being considered almost a year and a half later.”
Oxford Networks’ executive vice president of operations, Mike Tompkins, said the company plans to request documents from the PUC regarding the latest FairPoint award before deciding whether to appeal again. “After two successful appeals Oxford remains committed to pursuing a fair and equitable process,” Tompkins said in a statement.
“We’re troubled by the MPUC’s quick action to rescore the RFP and award the contract to FairPoint for a third time,” said Intrado’s senior vice president for government and regulatory affairs, Craig Donaldson. “In their Nov. 9, 2012, decision, the appeal panel invalidated the MPUC’s previous award, and to our knowledge, the basis for that decision has not been addressed in this third award.”
FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins said the company was pleased to be selected again. “It’s an important step toward providing the state of Maine with an E911 system that’s the next generation, that has more capability and functionality than the current one,” he said.
The company that ultimately secures the NextGen 911 contract will be charged with upgrading the state’s emergency 911 system to an Internet-based system that allows dispatchers to accept and pinpoint the location of emergency notifications that come by phone, text message, notification services such as OnStar, and other devices.
The state’s current 911 system can accept only phone calls. The state contract for that system, which is held by FairPoint, expires in October 2013.
The PUC initially sought to have the NextGen 911 system in place by August 2013, but that timeline has become unrealistic, said Welch, the PUC chairman.
“The appeals process has probably introduced something on order of a year’s delay,” he said. “We’ll try to make it as little as possible.”