Idaho Judge Tosses School Broadband Contract

Nov 11, 2014

Credit Sean MacEntee / Flickr Creative Commons

In a ruling that could have major implications for broadband service in schools — and a multimillion-dollar price tag for  Idaho taxpayers — a District Court judge has tossed out Idaho’s $60 million school broadband contract.

The disputed Idaho Education Network contract was declared void late Monday afternoon by 4th District Court judge Patrick Owen.

Owen sharply criticized the state Department of Administration for continuing to try to salvage the 2009 contract, after carving Syringa Networks out of the deal to provide broadband to 219 high schools across the state.

“An agreement made in violation of the state’s procurement law cannot be fixed or cured,” Owen wrote in his ruling.

Throughout the fall campaign, culminating a week ago in his election to a third term in office, Gov. Butch Otter touted the broadband system as a way of providing enhanced curriculum and dual-credit courses to rural Idaho. Even in the wake of Monday’s ruling, Otter remained true to this theme Tuesday . “There has never been a question about the opportunities the Idaho Education Network provides to our students and teachers,” Otter said in a prepared statement.

Outgoing state superintendent Tom Luna predicts the network will remain online and intact “without any interruption” as the legal battle continue. But Owen’s ruling raises a host of questions about the broadband contract — and the mechanics of a system that now serves about 87,000 students:

Ultimately, who pays for broadband service? Based on Monday’s ruling, the entire cost of broadband could fall to the state, and its taxpayers.

For several years, the state used “e-rate” dollars — a surcharge from cell phone and landline bills — to cover three-fourths of the Idaho Education Network’s costs.

But a Federal Communications Commission contractor put Idaho’s payments on hold in March 2013, because of the contract dispute. State officials have expressed confidence that they would prevail in court, which would convince the FCC contractor, the Universal Service Administrative Company, to free up Idaho’s e-rate payments.

In light of Monday’s ruling, that appears unlikely, at least in the short run. And it means, in essence, that Idahoans are paying twice for school broadband — through service charges, and through a continuing state bailout of the Idaho Education Network.

What has been the cost to taxpayers? For starters, $11.4 million. That’s how much the 2014 Legislature shelled out — after the Department of Administration finally disclosed the e-rate payment mess last January.

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