Vendor Evaluations

Introduction

Most districts find themselves in a situation where they have more than one solution or vendor available to them. This is a good position to be in because you can try out different systems to determine if one of them is a better for for your environment and team. You are also able to leverage competition to try to get a better deal.

Extremely rural districts may find that they cannot get any vendors to pick up the phone or submit RFP responses. If this is the case, your only route may be to buy a few APs off of a VAR like CDW-G for testing and evaluation. Regardless, it is strongly suggested that you test the solution and vendor prior to a large purchase.

Solutions Testing

If you are planning on completely overhauling your wireless network and changing manufacturers, EducationSuperHighway recommends that you test the solution prior to buying. If you do want to test the system, you have a few options.

  • Most manufacturers will lend you test equipment that you can install in your environment (they may even assist you) and test over the course of several weeks. Some even offer to give you an AP and the required license. This really allows you to get a feel for the complexity to implement these networks, as well as the performance, monitoring, and management over time. However, the installation and uninstallation of equipment may be too time consuming for some districts.
  • In a highly competitive sale, if you are deciding between two or three manufacturers, sometimes they will agree to a "bake-off" or side-by-side test. Usually, this requires that you define the environment and test criteria. The vendors will perform the test (while you watch) and report their results. This can be a good way to see what a solution is capable of, but be aware that some manufacturers will not agree to join the bake-off, so you may be disqualifying a viable option if you require this type of test from them.
  • Another option for districts is to buy a handful of APs to install in their environment to assess ease of installation and performance over time. This is a great option since you can take your time to really get to know the capabilities of the products prior to purchasing the remainder of the APs.
  • If you are either buying or borrowing equipment and testing a solution prior to releasing an RFP, this test period is a great time to determine the quality of support. You should take advantage of this time to call technical support to assess the speed and reliability of communications and quality of the resolution.

    Regardless of whether you perform the tests yourself or allow the manufacturer to perform the tests, it is highly suggested that you spend some time working with the management interface to be certain that you and your team are comfortable with the complexity and offerings of the solution.

    Issuing an RFP

    If you are looking to procure a wireless solution and are making large purchases, we recommend that you issue an RFP because you will be more likely to get a better deal. Even if you intend to stay with your current vendor, the RFP process will help clarify your requirements to your vendor and will likely improve the competitiveness of the vendor’s pricing. This is also a great opportunity to learn from different vendors what creative solutions they suggest for your district’s needs.

    As the initial vendor conversations evolve, you should start to get a sense for your ideal architecture and your high priority features. Throughout these conversations, share your initial requirements list with prospective vendors. In doing so, you’ll find out which features the vendors push back on and which vendor solutions are can meet all of your top requirements. If most manufacturers are telling you that they cannot meet all the requirements, it is worth making adjustments to your requirements to ensure that you receive at least three bids to the RFP. It is critical to have a competitive RFP. Vendors are very aware of their competitive landscape; the more bidders that are eligible, the more prices will come down.

    As you set up your RFP, if you aren’t highly confident of the best wireless network design for your district, we recommend you frame the problem your district is facing and ask the vendor to make a pitch for how they will solve the problem. While it is important to include any technical requirements the vendor will need to meet for your district so that you aren’t wasting your time or the vendor’s time, you will want to avoid being overly prescriptive in writing the RFP so that vendors have room to propose their recommended solutions for your district. As part of the framing, you may decide to ask the vendor to do a full site survey and then propose a solution. Alternatively, you may want to hire a third-party conduct a site survey and then attach the survey results to your RFP so that vendors can propose solutions based on your district’s data (see the Learn section for more details on conducting a site survey). On the other hand, if you know exactly the solution you want and are looking only for price quotes, you will want to be specific in describing your requirements.

    Your RFP should be written such that you can narrow your selection down to two or three potential bidders, and then negotiate on price or services before selecting a winning bidder (assuming this is in accordance with your procurement policy). Procurement policies for each district and state are different so it is important to understand them and operate your RFP process accordingly.

    RFP Examples

    Below are some high-quality RFPs that you can refer to when you structure your RFP for Category 2 equipment or services. Please remember to adapt these to meet your own local needs and regulations. If you are a single district, use the template for “Individual District”. If a collective purchasing arrangement such as a cooperative or consortia is desired, then use the “Aggregate Purchasing” template. The templates also include appendices with additional wireless LAN technical specifications and documents for bidders to use when responding to your RFP.

    RFP Template - Individual District
    RFP Template - Aggregate Purchasing