Recently, Airbus (yes, that Airbus) joined the ranks of companies vying to build Florida’s next-generation statewide law enforcement radio system. According to a letter recently sent from Airbus to the Florida Joint Task Force on the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System, the company is joining the chorus of calls for an open and competitive procurement for the system and radios, specifically supporting the recommendation made in March by the state’s top law enforcement officials.
This is a game-changer for the issue in several ways. First, it changes the dynamic from merely being a tête-à-tête between Harris Corporation and radio heavyweight Motorola Solutions, which has publicly supported an open and competitive procurement. With Airbus now on board, it really starts to test the limits of free-market conservatives in the Florida House and Senate and whether they believe those principles should extend to all levels of state government contracting.
Secondly, with another company at the table, it adds more weight to the argument that the Legislature should competitively bid the state’s radio contract, which according to state Sen. Alan Hays, is far from a sure thing as the Special Session on the budget begins. Having multiple companies vying to build the next phase of Florida’s statewide law enforcement radio system and sell radios provides the state with a wider variety of options for features and also helps to get better pricing. Now, the question is whether or not the state will be seeing this procurement through.
Buying these next-generation radios from Harris immediately essentially amounts to a sole-source contract since Harris is the only vendor that can provide radios under the existing state contract. It’s a great deal if you can get it. However, if such a purchase happens after the system is upgraded, up to 40 companies would have the ability to bid, with the outcome being a race to offer the best pricing and quality.
In its letter, Airbus agreed, stating that “competitive procurement between the radio device manufacturers will drive down prices and increase the State’s access to best in class radio devices. Furthermore, this will also allow the State to reduce the total cost of ownership and empower its SLERS end-users to purchase the subscriber units/radio devices that best meet their operational needs and budgets.”
From what I can see, there is only one entity that thinks it’s a good idea to just let the incumbent vendor upgrade this system without competition: Harris Corporation. The Legislature last year got the ball rolling and conducted a business case study, which suggested an open and competitive procurement would serve law enforcement radio users well. In response, the governor, House, and Senate all did the right thing by putting dollars in their respective budgets this year for a competitive solicitation. And two comprehensive reports from independent consultants agree that the contract should be bid sooner than later and the state law enforcement users themselves, as recently as March, have publicly recommended that the P25 system be bid out. So why the uncertainty? Is Harris afraid of competition?
The legislator with the most to gain or lose in this budget fight is state Rep. Ritch Workman, who has Harris in his backyard and is also making overtures about running for the Senate seat that will be vacated by Senate President Andy Gardiner. FloridaPolitics.com hears Workman is putting the hard sell on other members of his chamber and Gov. Scott to buy the radios, bringing them one step closer to convincing agencies and lawmakers that the state shouldn’t put the contract out for bid.
On this issue, one thing is clear: the state of Florida is set to pony up hundreds of millions to begin this massive undertaking. With more companies lining up to build it, the balance of power seems to be shifting from one company looking to sole-source to a bevy of companies each with their own comparative advantages.