The TASC List: Fiber (McGee) and folly

An early American radio comedy series classic, “Fibber McGee and Molly,” employed a running gag involving the family closet at 79 Wistful Vista. The household clutter would come tumbling out in an avalanche of messy contents whenever the door was opened. So it would seem that an endeavor being considered here in our own little wistful village has similar characteristics — and may result in our being buried with another unnecessary tax burden. The inherent “folly” of the Fiber Project stems in part from some of the factors that follow.

Lack of requirements. There is no statement of compelling need or description of essentiality to suggest the laying of fiber optic conduit will solve a particular problem or represent an entire solution. Rather, the implied suggestion is offered that fiber optics will insure that the town computer system will somehow resist natural disasters (like storm-driven tree fall) and catastrophic events just as hardened connections on the battlefield withstand explosive detonation and enemy attacks. And thus no cost justification or cost/benefits analysis can be constructed. Without detailed requirements, no outcomes can be evaluated. With essential and known system requirements, one can then offer the overall design and development responsibility for a coherent, best (short and long range) solution to a competent information technology vendor.

Need for a proposal. What we want, what we expect, and how we can assure ourselves of a best functioning town-wide information system that expands to allow for tomorrow’s needs should be derived from a professional response to the requirements. Adding piece-wise to today’s system will result in a hodge-podge of components, a collection of incompatibilities, and an avalanche of clutter from a closet full of disarray.

While we’re at it. We know how home remodeling and renovation projects become burdened with additional cost and overruns. Especially if we succumb to the suggestion that there are opportunities for “savings” and other economies if we take on the “added” (and convenient) tasks while fulfilling the original  job objectives. The fiber deal’s largest appeal results from an assertion that this is a one-time opportunity to fill open trenches. It’s as if the surgeon said: “Mr. Jones, while we have you on the operating table for the hernia repair, let’s get that appendix out at the same time.”  Implied: “You’ll be a lot more resilient in the future to possible medical emergencies.”

Wilton wannabe. Hey, they’ve got it; therefore, we must need  it. We know full well who the “they” are. And the very same consultants who recommended it to “them” (at a fee), will continue to reference and recommend it as far and as wide as is possible. Sold as a “win-win” for all parties — without ever defining what constitutes a win under any circumstances.

Other alternatives exist. First of all we need to get our disaster recovery house (or closet) in order at all town information system locations. That means from checkpoint and restart to backup arrangements to understanding the mission critical requirements of each site in a connected  world — and the real needs and uses for any information or data packages that will flow among the nodes. This is an essential first step. Only then can we examine other infrastructure options available that can provide remedies for anticipated exposures. There exist shared processor images and data storage facilities in cloud computing configurations that satisfy the recovery needs. There are also exchange arrangements available with other towns removed from Wilton for interchangeable resources under emergency conditions. Such other locations may not have experienced the same widespread outages as we might face in a certain circumstance, so  we can back each other up. In these arrangements, there may well be no need at all for fiber optic cable.

These conditions all shout “watch out” as Molly and every listener anticipated the closet opening, and offered warnings. Taken together, they are sufficient to send the project back for detail, definition and deliberation. Unlike the hapless McGees, the outcome can be both flawed and expensive. In their case, the cleanup only required stuffing everything back in storage, and the program ran for 25 years. However, this fiber project is not ready for prime time.

Mr. Brenner is a longtime Wilton resident and TASC (Toward a Stronger Community) is an independent citizens’ group “seeking collaborative initiatives aimed at effectiveness, process improvement, and quality assurance across all town and school operations to produce increased value and contained cost.”