Update: School broadband will remain online, for now

(UPDATED, 9:26 a.m. Thursday, with additional comment from CenturyLink.)

CenturyLink will not pull the plug on Idaho’s high school broadband system this weekend, a company spokesman said Thursday morning.

The news comes three days before a deadline day for the beleaguered broadband system, which provides remote classes and high-speed Internet across the state. CenturyLink — owed more than $1.5 million in back payments by the state and lead contractor Education Networks of America — had threatened to shut off service to schools on Sunday.

A statement — issued to Idaho Education News late Wednesday afternoon by company spokesman Mark Molzen — sent mixed signals.

“Given the high cost of these services, we cannot provide service indefinitely when we’re not being paid,” Molzen said. “The state has an obligation to pay for the broadband services it has been receiving.  Because our primary focus is on the students of Idaho who have become dependent on these services, we committed to work with the governor, state leaders and ENA to find a path forward that continues providing this essential service to Idaho students and teachers without interruption, and addresses our need for payment for all services delivered.”

On Thursday, Molzen said broadband would remain intact this weekend.

In an email sent to all Idaho school districts — obtained Wednesday evening by Idaho Education News — an ENA official downplayed the risk of a shutdown, in the short term.

“ENA continues to work to preserve the services of the IEN and has heard back from CenturyLink that they are willing to allow us to use the existing circuits to provide uninterrupted service to you,” wrote Michael Vance, the company’s senior account services manager in Boise. “Despite reports to the contrary and regardless of your choice to work directly with ENA, the (network) will not ‘go dark’ this weekend.”

In that same email, however, Vance says services to districts could be cut off on Feb. 27, if districts do not sign a short-term contract with ENA by that time.

CenturyLink is at the heart of the Idaho Education Network showdown, because of a Jan. 23 letter it sent to ENA. The letter demanded more than $1 million in past-due payments from ENA, saying the broadband system was “in jeopardy of being interrupted or disconnected.” The letter demanded payment in 30 days — effectively setting the deadline at Sunday and raised the specter of a statewide shutdown.

The state also owes CenturyLink $540,000 for back payments for broadband service to state agencies, but that debt is not addressed in the Jan. 23 letter.

Lawmakers have been scrambling to come up with a short-term fix to keep broadband in the schools — but have balked at the idea of allowing the state to pay ENA or CenturyLink. State law forbids agencies from paying on an illegal contract, and the Idaho Education Network contract has been thrown out in court.

In other developments from Wednesday on the Idaho Education Network story:

The emails that spelled out the bailout plan

Even before legislators unveiled their last-ditch plan to save broadband, the leaders of the House and Senate acknowledged some schools will struggle to make the plan work.

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House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

“Some rural districts may have a difficult time engaging suitable providers,” House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said in emails to fellow lawmakers, obtained Wednesday by Idaho Education News. “We hope to provide special help to those school districts to acquire adequate services as a group.”

Bedke and Hill sent similarly worded emails to their colleagues last weekend — laying out the groundwork of what has now emerged as the Legislature’s stopgap plan to replace the floundering Idaho Education Network.

Bedke and Hill urged lawmakers to encourage their local school administrators to negotiate the best broadband deal they can with service providers and “keep their receipts” so their schools can apply for reimbursement from the state.

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Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg

That, in essence, is the crux of the broadband bailout plan introduced Tuesday. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee signed off on a proposal that sets aside $3.6 million to reimburse school districts for short-term broadband contracts. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra would have control over this fund, and would be responsible for reimbursing school districts.

But as Bedke and Hill point out in their emails, it’s unclear whether schools will be able to secure broadband within a matter of days — especially in rural areas.

Otter ‘reviewing’ the bailout plan

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Gov. Butch Otter

The broadband bailout plan is supported not only by Hill and Bedke, but by a bipartisan supermajority in JFAC. However, it still needs to pass the House and Senate — before going to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.

For now, Otter isn’t weighing in publicly.

“The governor is engaged in trying to find a solution, both for the short term and long term,” spokesman Jon Hanian said Wednesday. “We are still reviewing the plan presented yesterday. This issue is fluid and rapidly developing. He remains optimistic for a positive outcome.”

CenturyLink’s statement, in full

“CenturyLink has continued to invest significant capital in rural broadband infrastructure to serve the people of Idaho and support the efforts of the Idaho Education Network (IEN) to connect Idaho students and teachers to critical services. We are proud of the broadband investments we’ve made that help improve educational opportunities for Idaho’s families.

“Because of the recent District Court ruling, the state has not paid its prime contract holder, Education Networks of America (ENA), for the broadband services provided to schools for several months. During this time, CenturyLink continued to provide ENA with services and paid all of our subcontractors, including Syringa Networks, without interruption, despite the fact that we have not been paid by ENA for those services. 

“Given the high cost of these services, we cannot provide service indefinitely when we’re not being paid. The state has an obligation to pay for the broadband services it has been receiving. Because our primary focus is on the students of Idaho who have become dependent on these services, we committed to work with the governor, state leaders and ENA to find a path forward that continues providing this essential service to Idaho students and teachers without interruption, and addresses our need for payment for all services delivered.”