Now that the Wilton Shared Data Network has the support of the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen on Monday voted unanimously to forward the estimated $1.5 million project to the Town Meeting for an up or down vote in March.
The controversial project — which involves linking the Town Hall, Wilton Library and Board of Education offices/Wilton High School to create a fully redundant fiber optic network — was yanked at the last minute from the Town Meeting agenda in May due to a lack of consensus on the need for it.
First Selectman Bill Brennan explained that after the request for funding was withdrawn, the board appointed a special Townwide Network Committee comprised of various town officials to review and further define the project.
The fiber committee commissioned auditing firm Blum Shapiro to conduct an independent review of the project, Brennan said.
Blum Shapiro in turn supported the findings of an earlier report from BVH Integrated Services which concluded that the town could benefit from the project in a number of ways including improved network redundancy, reduced dependence on third party IT support, reduced communications costs, increased security and operational efficiencies.
Brennan said in November the fiber committee voted 3-0-2 in favor of the project. One of the two abstentions, he said, was because the committee member felt he could not support the project without the support of the Board of Education, which previously had not expressed an opinion on the project, but which has since expressed its support for it.
Brennan said he is concerned about the timing of the project, since the town is hoping to underground sections of the fiber when Yankee Gas lays new lines in sections of town next year. He said the town is "in active negotiations" with Yankee Gas, but time is running out to get the project through the approvals process.
Town officials have said undergrounding the fiber cables while Yankee Gas has the utility easement already excavated will be key to holding down the project cost. While most of the fiber optic network will be aerial, or pole-mounted, some large spans in the downtown will be underground.
"We don't have forever on this," Brennan said, adding that the project is "not budgeted" and therefore "must go before the town in a referendum."
When asked why the project price tag had dropped from the previous request of around $1.67 million, Town Chief Financial Officer Sandra Dennies informed that the town was able to reduce the project budget when it learned from CL&P that it does not have to "make ready" utility poles prior to doing aerial installation.
Brennan said in order for the town to come to a final agreement with Yankee Gas, funding for the project must already be in place.
"We need to bring this to a head," he said, adding that "every other community in this area has gone to a fiber optic system — as have most of the universities."
Dennies clarified that the $1.5 million covers the design of the new network, construction and project oversight and also includes a 10% contingency for escalation.
Selectman James Saxe pointed out that the project could save the town up to $500,000 a year by unifying the town, school and library systems, creating operational efficiencies through consolidation and eliminating carrier costs.
One of the advantages of the proposed fiber optic network is that it would give the town full redundancy (i.e emergency backup) by virtualizing its data and communications infrastructure — for example should Town Hall be destroyed by fire or in a storm, town employees could in theory report to the Board of Education offices, the Library or one of the schools, and work from computers and phones at those locations (or even from home) just as if nothing ever happened. In this regard the town government would be able to remain fully or at least mostly functional in the event of a disaster that takes a major facility offline. By the same token, Board of Education employees would be able to use the library or another town facility in the event the Board of Ed offices become disabled.
Second Selectman Hal Clark said he appreciates the importance of network redundancy after recently experiencing a network outage impacting "mission critical" communications and systems at his place of work. He said he was concerned to learn through the Blum Shapiro report that "there is no back up as of right now for the Board of Education's system."
The selectmen tentatively set Tuesday, March 14, for the special Town Meeting and vote on the project.