Idaho lawmakers on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) could vote to hold off on some funding for the Idaho Education Network on Friday. That decision could effectively end the program designed to link Idaho public high schools with broadband Internet access, according to its supporters. Some lawmakers say a delay would allow the state to re-examine IEN and make sure it isn’t too costly. Lawmakers called an informational meeting with representatives of IEN as well as officials with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that didn’t receive contracts with IEN.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna said any delays in money for IEN would be fatal to the program. “There is no pause button in this project,” he said. “There is only a kill switch.”
JFAC will set the budget Friday for the Department of Administration, which is implementing IEN. Part of the department’s request is the authority to spend a $3 million grant from the Albertsons Foundation to pay for part of the program. The rest of IEN’s funding comes federal stimulus dollars, competitive grants, and the federal E-rate program, which provides subsidies for schools for new technology. The Albertsons grant and federal stimulus dollars will run out, so IEN’s future funding source is uncertain.
Luna said the current budget climate would be an especially bad time to hold off on funding IEN. “Our schools, those who have access to IEN today and those who are looking forward to having access next year, are relying on the IEN in order to meet the needs of their students because of lack of funding. We will exacerbate the cuts we have made to public education if we push the pause button, or what I am convinced is the kill switch on IEN.”
“From my perspective, it’s better to slow down rather than speed up,” Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise said. She told IdahoReporter.com after the meeting that it’s possible JFAC could hold off on approving the grant money. That way, the contracts for IEN could be reviewed, perhaps to include smaller ISPs that currently provide Internet services for schools not yet connected to IEN. The state is currently contracting with Qwest and the Tennessee-based Education Networks of America (ENA) for the program across the entire state.
“As a matter of state policy, do we want to have a statewide system that drives local providers out of business?” Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, asked rhetorically during the meeting.
One state representative also serving Schroeder’s district, Democrat Shirley Ringo who serves on JFAC, has said that a Moscow-based ISP didn’t get an IEN contract. “I certainly wouldn’t think of it as even hitting a kill switch, but a pause switch might be a good idea,” Ringo said.
“The threat that this is the kill switch I think is perhaps an overstatement,” said Steve Meyer of InterMax, a north Idaho ISP that doesn’t have an IEN contract. He said that if contracts were reopened, local providers scattered across Idaho could provide comparable service to area high schools for cheaper. “The question here it about the cost-effectiveness of the last mile,” he said, saying that can be the most expensive part of Internet service.
Several other regional Internet providers also said they could offer cheaper service than Qwest and ENA, but they didn’t get contracts, and weren’t large enough to offer statewide support. Melissa Vandenberg, the Department of Administration’s deputy attorney general, said it was too late to compare prices. “These gentlemen did not bid on the contract,” she said about the officials with other ISPs. “We don’t allow someone to come in after the prices are disclosed … and say ‘hey, I can do it cheaper.’”
JFAC is scheduled to take up IEN’s funding during its Friday morning meeting, but there may be more action in the Legislature on IEN. “It may be necessary for us to have another little conversation,” said Senate Education Chair John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who led the informational meeting Wednesday. He said lawmakers could also add some intent language to IEN’s funding, and that action by the House and Senate Education Committees could lead to policy changes affecting IEN.