Idaho Education Network Continues Legal Rift with Syringa

butch_otter

Idaho could be getting an early holiday discount on its expensive Idaho Education Network broadband project meant to provide internet infrastructure to schools and other public institutions.

In 2009, the DOA put out a request for a bid on its 20-year, $60 million Idaho Education Network project, a statewide broadband network to link public schools, universities, libraries, state agencies, and other locations, reports Cynthia Sewell writing for the Idaho Statesman. The IEN would then supply high-speed Internet service, two-way video, streaming video courses, and other benefits to all Idaho classrooms. Education Networks of America (ENA) and Syringa Networks, submitting a joint proposal, won the contract. After that, the legality of IEN came into question, the FCC stopped providing its 75% of the IEN’s funding, and the loss of the federal funding left the state with an $8.5 million budget hole, as of Aug. 31. The Legislature approved an $11.4 million payment to the IEN in March, to keep the IEN from going dark.

Because of decreased equipment costs, the state may get a price break on the high school broadband system through June of 2016. The network’s Program Resource Advisory Council voted last week to trim budget requests for the rest of the 2014-2015 budget year and for the 2015-2016 budget year which begins July 1, says Kevin Richert, writing for the Idaho Press-Tribune.

The council says the state will have to spend about $2.19 million to maintain the system from March 1 -June 30, which it had said, in August, would take $2.4 million.

The committee said that the state will need to spend $2.74 million of general fund money on the network in 2015-2016, which is less than the original quote of $2.95 million.

In 2015-2016, the state could lower its “e-rate” dollars (federally administered money collected on cellphone and land-line bills) from $7.2 million to $6.72 million.

A bump in the road for IEN is an on-going lawsuit over its 2009 contract with Syringa Networks. An FCC contractor has kept Idaho’s e-rate payments on hold since March 2013. Since there is no estimate for when the lawsuit will be settled, it is unclear when or if federal payments will resume. During last week’s final gubernatorial debate between Gov. Butch Otter, the Republican incumbent defending the deal and the Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff saying it should be rewritten. As of now, the 2014 Legislature shelled out $6.6 million to balance the books on the project for 2013-2014 and another $4.8 million to cover expenses from July of this year through February, 2015. The decrease of equipment costs does not affect this $11.4 million bill.

Greg Zickau of the state Department of Administration (DOA), the agency that oversees the Idaho Education Network, says that broadband costs will go down as schools switch from copper wire to fiber optics. This allows schools to have more powerful, yet cheaper ether-net equipment.

The lawsuit and the federal inquiry is between Syringa and the state and alleges that the state of Idaho awarded the broadband service contract illegally. A settlement via mediation between the state and Syringa Networks last month was unsuccessful.

Betsy Z. Russell, blogging for The Spokesman-Review‘s Boise bureau, says that Gov. Otter issued a statement as part of his campaign for re-election – which was successful – that included these comments: Syringa was never a bidder for the IEN; Syringa would not sign a confidentiality agreement with the state; Syringa has no claim to any monetary damages; and the Idaho Supreme Court upheld this information as valid.