CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA – Nobody told Hurricane librarian Rebecca Elliot that the $22,600 Internet router in the branch library’s storage closet was powerful enough to serve an entire college campus.
Nobody told Elliot how much the router cost or who paid for it. Workers just showed up and installed the device. They left behind no instructions, no user manual.
The high-end router serves four public computer terminals at the small library in Putnam County.
“I don’t know much about those kinds of things,” Elliot said last week, before politely leaving to help an elderly patron select books. “I just work here.”
The state of West Virginia is using $24 million in federal economic stimulus money to put high-powered Internet computer routers in small libraries, elementary schools and health clinics, even though the pricey equipment is designed to serve major research universities, medical centers and large corporations, a Gazette-Mail investigation has found.
The state purchased 1,064 routers two years ago, after receiving a $126 million federal stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet across West Virginia.
The Cisco 3945 series routers, which cost $22,600 each, are built to serve “tens of thousands” of users or device connections, according to a Cisco sales agent. The routers are designed to serve a minimum of 500 users.
Yet state broadband project officials directed the installation of the stimulus-funded Cisco routers in West Virginia schools with fewer than a dozen computers and libraries that have only a single terminal for patrons.
“The routers have a lot of power,” said Karen Goff, executive secretary of the West Virginia Library Commission. “Because the routers are so big, our tech guys had to build shelves for them. The libraries had no other place to put them.”
Morgantown-based WVNET, the state government Internet services agency, uses six Cisco routers with similar capacity to serve all state agencies and public universities.
West Virginia Homeland Security chief Jimmy Gianato, who’s leading the state broadband project, defended the $24 million router purchase last week, saying the devices “could meet many different needs and be used for multiple applications.”
“Our main concerns were to not have something that would become obsolete in a couple of years,” Gianato said. “Looking at how technology evolves, we wanted something that was scalable, expandable and viable, five to 10 years out. We wanted to make sure every place had the same opportunity across the state.”
In July 2010, a West Virginia Office of Technology administrator warned that the Cisco 3945 series routers “may be grossly oversized,” according to an email obtained by the Gazette-Mail.
The administrator asked state officials to postpone plans to spend $24 million on the routers so he would have time to evaluate the proposed purchase.
Five days later, state officials signed the $24 million contract with Verizon Network Integration to buy the Cisco routers.
Verizon delivered an additional 100 routers to the state for free. West Virginia officials never asked for the additional equipment — valued at more than $2.26 million.
Verizon spokesman Keith Irland said the company simply responded to router specifications detailed in the state’s bid posting.
“They specified the equipment they wanted,” Irland said. “That’s what they requested, that’s what we bid on. We had the lowest price, and we won the bid for the equipment and related maintenance.”
The Gazette-Mail contacted two Cisco sales agents last week, asking whether the 3945 series routers were appropriate for schools and libraries.
“The 3945 is our router solution for campus and large enterprises, so this is overkill for your network,” a Cisco representative responded.
The sales agents recommended a smaller router — with a list price of $487.
State Department of Education officials questioned the size of the routers before Gianato and the Office of Technology executed the $24 million purchase order.
It didn’t make sense to buy the same size routers for a 1,800-student high school and a 100-student elementary school, according to administrators in the Department of Education’s technology division. The state is distributing 471 of the high-priced routers to schools.
“The WVDE asked if the size of the routers could vary based on the needs of a school,” said Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “At that time, it is our understanding that, for consistency and future expansion, the plan was to buy all the same size.”
Gianato said putting the same size router in every school was about “equal opportunity.”
“We wanted to make sure a student in McDowell County had the same opportunities as a student in Kanawha County or anywhere else,” he said. “A student in a school of 200 students should have the same opportunity as a student in a school with 2,000 students.”
John Dunlap, operations director at the state Office of Technology, had similar concerns over the size of the routers.
“The Office of Technology is concerned that this equipment may be grossly oversized for several of the facilities in which it is currently slated to be installed,” Dunlap wrote in a July 12, 2010, email to Gianato. “As a result, the Office of Technology would like to evaluate these and make recommendations to deploy the 3,900 series router where it may be better utilized for this project.”
Last week, the Gazette-Mail asked Dunlap to explain his email. He referred questions to Gianato.
Gianato acknowledged that he didn’t heed Dunlap’s advice or wait for an evaluation.
“The routers already had been bid out,” Gianato said. “I think John was looking at our needs now, not looking at our needs into the future.”