Idaho Schools Face Potential Tech Crisis Over Broadband Issue
Legal battle threatens digital network
The use of educational technology in many Idaho schools is in jeopardy.
State officials are scrambling to make sure their broadband network provides uninterrupted service to districts following a protracted legal battle over a technology contract that has left the network's future in limbo.
Last week, Idaho Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter pledged to quickly rebid the contract to provide broadband service to the districts through the Idaho Education Network, saying in his State of the State address that the network is "an asset that must be maintained."
A dispute over how the contract for the state broadband network was awarded has been making its way through the courts for years. In November, an Idaho district court judge ruled that the $60 million contract had been awarded illegally. Earlier, in 2013, the state's federal E-rate payments for the network were suspended because of the legal complications, forcing lawmakers to set aside money to cover the costs. Idaho state officials recently instructed districts to apply for their own E-rate funding, in case the network has to suspend services.
The network, also known as IEN, brings high-speed broadband and videoconferencing services to every high school in the state. Many districts use the service to power 1-to-1 student-computing programs and wireless networks, and to tap into courses offered via videoconferences.
However, a new audit issued by the state Legislative Services Office last week found that 53 percent of state videoconferencing equipment purchased through the IEN was not being used by schools and districts, and that the number of classes offered through the network has waned since 2012.
At least 30 states across the country have similar networks, which seek to level the playing field by sharing costs and bringing modern broadband services to outlying areas. Many Idaho schools have come to rely on the network to support the use of technology in day-to-day instruction, but the legal woes over the contract are making educators across the state uneasy about what's ahead.
A statewide network for schools in a rural state such as Idaho "is incredibly important," said Evan Marwell, the CEO of Education SuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates improved school Internet connections. Such a network can provide a more affordable, higher level of service, along with technical expertise, he said. "The economies of scale you get in aggregating that traffic are immense."
Lawsuit Triggers Uncertainty
Before the IEN brought high-speed broadband to the 810-student Melba district, Superintendent Andrew Grover said his whole school system shared 3 megabits per second of bandwidth for 250 school computers. "If we turned them all on at the same time," he said, "they didn't work."
Today, the district has increased its bandwidth to 42 MBPS, and it has a 1-to-1 middle school computing program, 800 digital devices, and a strong wireless network. Much of the broadband infrastructure upgrades were made without expenditures from the district budget, using the IEN, according to Mr. Grover.
But he's worried about what could happen now. "The thought of us having to go back to 3 megs because that's what we can afford—that effectively shuts our schools down," he said.
The idea for the IEN, introduced in the legislature in 2008, was for a robust broadband network for all Idaho high schools. The state sought bids for providers and a contract was awarded to Education Networks of America and Qwest (now CenturyLink). A separate company, Syringa Networks, was initially part of the Education Networks of America bid for the work, but ultimately the $60 million contract did not include Syringa. In a lawsuit filed at the end of 2009, Syringa alleged the award process did not follow procurement procedures. Some of the company's complaints were dismissed during earlier court proceedings, but the November court decision was in favor of Syringa, saying the award of the contract violated Idaho procurement law.
Also during this time, the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the federal E-rate program for the Federal Communications Commission, suspended Idaho's reimbursement for the state network while contract violations were investigated, said Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman. The state has not received payments for the IEN service since March 2013.
In a Jan. 9 letter sent to school districts, Idaho state officials recommended districts file paperwork to start the process for receiving their own E-rate reimbursements to provide broadband in the short term. "While this should not be interpreted as an indication that the network is being dissolved, we do want to be proactive about ensuring that Idaho school districts are held harmless no matter the outcome of legal or legislative action," the letter says.
Will Goodman, the chief technology officer for the Idaho Department of Education, called an interruption of broadband services to districts "our biggest fear." He said state education superintendent Sherri Ybarra, who just began the job Jan. 5, supports the idea of rebidding the contract, as well as having districts pursue their own E-rate dollars. "We don't want districts to lose capabilities and students to lose access," Mr. Goodman said.
Scattered problems with state broadband networks like Idaho's should not discourage other states, said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. Both SETDA and the FCC, which has provided incentives for aggregating services and equipment, have encouraged the use of statewide networks, he said.
"Nobody wants to get caught without broadband service," he said. "But how a statewide network is set up and evolves over time is really important to watch."
Company Payments Delayed
In the 36,700-student West Ada district in Meridian, Idaho, Jerry Reininger, the director of information systems, is applying for E-rate reimbursement on behalf of the district, though he acknowledged if he has to go outside the IEN for broadband service, it will likely cost more.
"It's about making sure we take the necessary steps to ensure that we can get E-rate for our school district, just in case," he said.
But rural districts may have a greater challenge finding a company willing to provide service close to that of the IEN, he said, especially if a telecommunications provider knows it is only for a short time, until the legal issues surrounding the IEN are resolved, he said.
In the meantime, Gov. Otter is making the rescue of the state network a priority. Last week, he unveiled his proposed budget, which calls for $7.3 million to fund the IEN next year, plus a supplemental appropriation for this year of $1.6 million.
The governor also recently hired John W. Goedde, the former Idaho Senate Education Committee chairman, as a point man working to resolve the IEN issue. Mr. Goedde said he feels confident that with the rebid of the contract the state can have an agreement in place by July 2016 that is eligible for the E-rate.
Although state lawmakers have put funds aside to pay CenturyLink and Education Networks of America, the companies actually have not received the money since the fall because of the E-rate complications. "If the contract is not a valid contract, we have no way to pay the providers," Mr. Goedde said. "At some point, they will not be in a financial position" to continue service, he said.
In addition, the November ruling states that under an illegal contract, money paid by the state should be repaid. State officials are still trying to determine what that means. Motions for clarification and reconsideration have been filed by several parties connected to the lawsuit.
Jon Hanian, a spokesman for the governor, said he believes there is a strong desire among lawmakers to prevent the IEN from faltering. "The hope is that [students and teachers] won't be impacted at all," he said. "There is uncertainty, but we believe the steps we're taking will lead to resolution."
Vol. 34, Issue 18, Page 8Published in Print: January 21, 2015, as Idaho Schools Facing Potential Tech Crisis Over Broadband Issue