Earlier this week, Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie attended the Broadband Access Study Committee and wrote this about the long-term challenges facing lawmakers who are tasked with finding a solution.
“Internet access is now like air” Seth Deniston, Director of Technology for the Coeur d’Alene School District, told the Broadband Access Study Committee on Tuesday. The committee is tasked with figuring out the “minimum service level” at which the air should be provided.
The answer might seem simple: Analyze the usage, judge the outcomes and buy bandwidth to fit. But broadband in Idaho has never been simple. Standing in the way is six years of history with the Idaho Education Network, a lawsuit, and the Idaho constitution. Add in two years of political feuding, perceptions of subterfuge, betrayal and broken political relationships, and you have a complicated policy environment.
The Idaho Education Network was ostensibly shut down in February, but districts found their own broadband solutions. Alan Dunn, Superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District put the current situation in perspective for the committee. “We’re paying less, significantly less,” he said. The district left the statewide contract earlier this year and was able to find an adequate broadband provider in a very rural area with no interruption in service.
Deniston echoed Dunn’s numbers, saying his school district went from a $14,000 monthly contract to a $2,000 contract after they were forced to negotiate on their own. The Idaho Falls School District 91 and the Boise School District also saw significant savings without compromising services.
The situation might be solved if it wasn’t for E-rate dollars and a constantly growing need for more bandwidth. The Legislature planned on using E-rate dollars to fund more than two thirds of the broadband costs. The money comes from Universal Service Administrative Compan — or USAC — a non-profit company set up by the FCC to fund telecommunications projects across the nation. They have granted $41 billion nationwide and $123 million to Idaho.
E-rate dollars stopped for the State of Idaho in 2012. The last payment in 2012 came to $6.5 million, a significant portion of the broadband budget. Requests for $6.8 million in 2013 and $7 million in 2014 were never allocated. The state failed to even make a request in 2015.
This added a significantly larger price tag to the state’s budget and forced the state to reevaluate the process. E-rate dollars did continue flowing to individual schools and districts that managed their contracts and requests outside of the state system.
Losing E-rate dollars for three years (around $21 million) is not the end of the problem. The specter of the previous refused contracts could still bias USAC decisions. Winston E. Himsworth, a representative from E-Rate Central, gave an auspicious warning to the committee.
“Once you get a target on your back, things are not easy for you,” he said.
The statewide problems have the local districts worried. “We must have funding,” Dunn told the committee. “We can’t survive without it… we cannot afford broadband access without your support.”
Then there’s the Idaho State Constitution. The constitution says the education system must be “uniform and thorough.” Districts like Boise and Idaho Falls would have no problem going it alone as they did in recent months. Districts like Sugar-Salem, however, anticipate higher prices because of their rural location. They also lack the tax base of a Boise or Idaho Falls school district to cover the costs, and the institutional knowledge to successfully apply for E-rate dollars. This could pose a significant problem to the uniform constitutional charge.
The simple solution to the uniform problem is a unified state system. The current system, however, would have to change, and accepting that the current state-level solution is broken could be a problem.
In one of the most dramatic exchanges of the day, Sen. Bart Davis cross-examined the Department of Administration’s Chief Technology Officer Greg Zickau.
“I want to understand what happened, so we don’t repeat it,” Davis said.
“We believe what we did was in accordance with the statute,” Zickau said.
Davis repeatedly cited from 4th District Judge Patrick Owen’s ruling against the state that declared the state’s contract void. “You divided the services, the contract, the menu,” which would be out of compliance with the law, he said.
Davis then focused in on a point he said aggravated him. “The administrator should have entered a written statement,” Davis said, citing Owen and other precedent, but the administrator for the contract didn’t present that written statement until after a public records request was made. “He went back and said, ‘Gee this is what I was thinking,’” Davis said.
Officials from the Department of Administration who were present had no alternative for what might have happened.
If true, Davis said, that alone would make the contract void, forcing the state to do a new contract differently. Zickau and the incoming Director Bob Geddes did not admit that was a problem, and offered no ideas to rectify it in the future. The exchange ended with co-chair Sen. Dean Mortimer steering the conversation towards a different lawmaker.
What does it all mean? There is a lot of work to do. Relationships have to be built back up. Trust has to be regained. A problem has to be described and accepted in order for lessons to be learned. The path forward will be complicated mainly because of the path the Idaho Education Network has left behind.