Blue Moon or Blue Sky?
August 12, 2002
Blue Moon Solutions dreamed of a patch-work quilt of community wireless access networks across Texas but it began to unravel at the very first seam.
We get mail, and it's not always positive -- like the two recent e-mailed responses to an article we posted back at the beginning of June about Blue Moon Solutions of Lubbock, TX, and its vision for a network of community wireless networks linking rural and small-town Texas.
We interviewed the company's CEO and chief visionary, Marty Hale, who outlined his grand scheme for building 802.11-based community networks using public money from the Texas Infrastructure Fund (TIF) -- a state e-fund levy. The idea was to build networks one at a time and then link them to create contiguous roaming coverage across the region.
The first patch in the quilt was to be a network in Eastland County, 125 miles west of Dallas. A group of 17 TIF-eligible entities in the district -- five towns, libraries, colleges, school districts and hospitals -- along with the county government banded together to form Rural Texas Access, Inc. (RTAI), a non-profit corporation. The group managed to secure $2.5 million in TIF funding to build a network -- with a great deal of help from Blue Moon, Hale claimed.
Hale also told us in the original interview -- or, as later became clear, only implied -- that his company had a contract to build and then manage the Eastland network for RTAI. Managing the network would include wholesaling bandwidth to local commercial ISPs. This last part was crucial to the plan, Hale stressed. It would mean the network was sustainable without continual infusions of TIF money. Eastland would be a model for the state and the country in this respect, he suggested.
The idea had merit and seemed plausible, though by no means a slam dunk. It still does.As it turned out, Blue Moon and its vision had far less credibility in Eastland County and other parts of Texas. This was for some obvious and some not so obvious reasons. The obvious reason, as our two letter writers were quick to point out, was that Blue Moon had jumped the gun. It was not in fact building the Eastland network. That contract went eventually to a Stafford TX company, Microwave Networks. At the time we originally talked to Hale, the bidding had not even closed.
What Blue Moon did have, earlier in the year, was a $12,500 contract to write a technical plan for the Eastland County network, on which the request for proposal (RFP) for construction was later based. Because of that involvement, and the fact that he and his team had worked tirelessly, Hale says, with the project's de facto leaders -- Terry Langford, the Eastland County economic development coordinator, and county Judge Brad Stevenson -- he assumed Blue Moon would win the contract. He was wrong.
In the aftermath, Langford, who had backed Blue Moon strongly, resigned, apparently in disgust at the outcome, and Blue Moon packed up the office it had opened in the city of Eastland and moved back to Lubbock. A little bitter but only slightly daunted, Hale is now working on similar projects in other parts of the sate. Langford may come to work for him.
"We've moved on," Hale says now.
In Eastland, meanwhile the wireless network project is also moving on, much as it was originally conceived, according to the people still involved. Hale's dream of a pan-Texas wireless access network has taken a serious blow, though, he says.
So what happened in Eastland? The short answer is that Hale counted his chickens before they hatched. The longer answer is that too much hype happened, too much politics happened, too many personalities collided.
If there's a lesson to be learned it's that making community wireless networking projects work requires political acumen and finely-tuned people and management skills, not just vision, commitment and drive. It's an important lesson because making these projects work may be crucial to bridging the Digital Divide.