Delegation watches broadband issue from afar

Idaho’s congressional delegation is in the loop about the state’s broadband funding crisis.

But the federal lawmakers — all former Idaho legislators — are steering clear of giving advice to their counterparts at the Statehouse.

The delegation received a briefing last week from the Federal Communications Commission, days after the news broke that an FCC contractor is withholding payments for the Idaho Education Network project. With the FCC-administered money on indefinite hold, the Otter administration is asking for $14.45 million to keep the high school broadband network online through June 2015.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and GOP Rep. Mike Simpson stop short of saying the state should pony up the $14.45 million. But Simpson comes closest.

“While we are reluctant to offer any advice to the Legislature on whether or not to fund this or any other program, the continued uncertainty surrounding the (Universal Service Administrative Company) review seems to indicate that federal funds are unlikely to become available in time to maintain the program now used by Idaho students,” Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said this week.

The fourth member of delegation, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.

The Universal Service Administrative Company, or USAC, is the key player in the Idaho Education Network funding impasse. USAC works on behalf of the FCC to administer funds for wireless projects across the country. The money comes from a monthly fee on cell phone and landline bills. USAC hasn’t paid the state anything on the Idaho Education Network project since March, while reviewing the state’s disputed 2009 broadband contract.

An appeal of the contract is still pending in state District Court, and USAC’s review is independent of the court battle. The delegation, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re not exerting influence over the case at this point,” Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said Wednesday.

USAC’s review has created at least a $14.45 million dilemma for Idaho legislators, and the state’s losses could even reach $28 million. But delegation members did not criticize the FCC.

“The FCC’s handling of the matter has been more than sufficient as they have followed the policy and procedures set up in their offices while they await the court’s decision on the matter,” Risch spokeswoman Suzanne Wrasse said.

Otter maintains that the state will likely receive its money from USAC, and the $14.45 million represents a bridge loan. He too does not criticize the feds’ handling of the matter. “The only way they can get response from everybody, which makes sense, is to stop the (payment),” he told reporters Tuesday.