UPDATE: Idaho Lawmakers Agree to Another Session, Probably in August, for Broadband Committee 

Tort claim, IEN implosion cast shadow over interim committee hearing

UPDATE: July 21, 3:45 p.m.

Idaho legislators involved in the Broadband Access Study Committee agreed in the late afternoon hour of Tuesday, July 21 that a single day of testimony and policy proposals on the past, present and future of broadband Internet access to Idaho schools isn't enough. 

Lawmakers heard from policy analysts, representatives of the Idaho Department of Administration and school district on the issue, but were not able to hear from industry leaders or analyses of how other states provide similar access to their schools. Meanwhile, members of the committee quizzed policy experts on what went wrong with the Idaho Education Network—at times venting their frustration.

"I can pick your answer apart, and because I can means you're not looking at this with good, capable counsel," said Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, to Department of Administration representatives.

The committee did, however, hear about one proposal for fixing broadband access by creating a centrally located managed network—similar to IEN—that would ensure equitability by managing costs to individual school districts and allow those districts to opt out of network services in favor of local contracts with local Internet service providers and technology use. As IEN unraveled during this year's legislative session, lawmakers learned that while there was high demand within school districts, there was far less demand for other Internet-related services managed through IEN, like video conferencing. 

"Only a few schools were taking advantage of the private managed network offerings," said Idaho Department of Administration Greg Zickau.

Members of the committee have agreed to meet a second time to hear from industry leaders and policy analysts in late August.

UPDATE: July 21, 1 p.m.

Members of the Broadband Access Study Committee are meeting Tuesday  at the Idaho State Capitol to consider testimony from school districts large and small from across the Gem State to consider policy solutions for the future of broadband Internet access for Idaho schools. While different school districts said they faced a multitude of challenges in the wake of the collapse of the Idaho Education Network, they agreed that Internet access itself is a non-negotiable necessity for Idaho's K-12 students, and that the future of broadband access is now in the hands of the Idaho Legislature.

"Our district is poor. Without you, we would not have broadband access," said Sugar-Salem School District Superintendent Alan Dunn.

The Sugar-Salem School District has 1,500 students, and recently passed a $450,000 school bond to help fund operations, but  the funding mechanism for Idaho schools is rife with iniquities: The Sugar-Salem bond will cost approximately $88 per household, but raising the same sum in Ketchum, where property values are significantly higher, that cost would be approximately $2 per household.

Not all Idaho school districts have access to more than one Internet service provider from which they can get broadband access like the Coeur D'Alene School District, which serves 10,400 students and was able to award a contract to the lowest bidding ISP. There, 11 full-time tech staff members serve 20 sites across the district, and CdA School District Director of Technology Seth Deniston told lawmakers this morning that information technology staff members provide a service that is now indispensable for educators. 

"Internet is now like air. A lot of our students and teachers feel like they cannot breathe without it," he said. 

ORIGINAL STORY: July 15

In February, members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee of the Idaho Legislature warned that the impending collapse of the Idaho Education Network would need a quick fix if it was to avert a blackout of computer screens in schools throughout the state.

JFAC's temporary solution was to allow school districts to secure their own broadband contracts. On July 21, the 10-member House-Senate Broadband Access Study Committee will convene at the Statehouse in a one-day effort to generate new options to put before the 2016 Legislature.

"A win would be that we can see a clear path forward and we can make a clear recommendation. I honestly would be surprised if that comes out of this meeting. I have a feeling we're going to need at least one more meeting," said Moscow Democratic Sen. Dan Schmidt.

Citing concerns about the complexity of broadband access in Idaho, Schmidt said he's still uneasy about the committee's ability to craft new solutions. He indicated that some lawmakers have already fronted a number of possible recommendations, but Schmidt added it would "take some convincing" for him to support another statewide managed network. The interim committee co-chair, Coeur d'Alene Republican Rep. Luke Malek, said he doesn't want to take any recommendations off the table.

"I don't even know if legislation is the right option," Malek said, adding that he would be interested in anything that would help the state "position itself as a leader in education."

IEN was a debacle from the beginning. Soon after Education Networks of America won the contract to build IEN, Syringa Network, which lost the initial bid to be the broadband provider despite submitting the least expensive and most technically proficient bid, sued the state for violating its own procurement law.

It was later learned two top Idaho ENA staffers had ties to then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, and one ENA staffer had served as Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's campaign finance director. Meanwhile, former Idaho Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna—sister of the former schools superintendent—extended the state's contract with IEN through 2019, even as Syringa's lawsuit against the state moved through the court system.

Fourth District Court Judge Patrick Owen sided with Syringa in November 2014, voiding the state's $60 million contract with ENA and Qwest Communications. In February, lawmakers pulled the plug on IEN. Meanwhile, ENA and CenturyLink submitted tort claims against the state, alleging Idaho still owed them $6 million in back payments. The state faced a 90-day period in which to submit a response to those claims and could now face possible lawsuits.

"ENA finds itself in the ... position of having undeniably provided valuable services to the IEN, but being denied payment," wrote ENA legal counsel in the claim.

While the Broadband Access Study Committee will work in the shadow of that litigation and the implosion of IEN, Malek said he doesn't share Schmidt's concern that the committee could fail to deliver clear recommendations to the Legislature.

"Are you asking me if I'm surprised a politician is skeptical?" he said. "I'm confident. I think this will be a very collaborative process."


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