Broadband: State could be forced to pay feds

Teresa Luna
State Administration Department Director Teresa Luna

If the federal government voids an Idaho broadband project contract, Idaho could be forced to pay back nearly $13.5 million to the feds, state Department of Administration director Teresa Luna said Thursday.

Funding for Idaho’s high school broadband network is in indefinite “limbo,” as a federal contractor reviews the state contract. And based on the experience in Idaho school districts, this review could take months or years.

Luna updated the Senate Education Committee on the Idaho Education Network’s funding plight Thursday afternoon — and urged lawmakers to support $14.45 million in supplemental funding to keep the program afloat through June 2015. The state funding is designed to replace federally administered money from cell phone and landline bills, at least in the short run.

“Without that supplemental, the (network) will shut down,” Luna said Thursday.

Gov. Butch Otter recommends paying the $14.45 million, saying it is needed to maintain a network providing high-speed connectivity to nearly 90,000 students in 131 school districts and charters.

Luna first revealed the funding crunch, and made the pitch for the supplemental state funding, in a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meeting last week. The funding request frustrated and blindsided JFAC members — and the powerful budget committee has not yet set a hearing to consider the request.

On Thursday, Luna shed some new light on the crisis:

  • Under questioning from Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, Luna said the state could be forced to reimburse “e-rate” funding if its broadband contract is found null and void. The state has received nearly $13.5 million in e-rate funding since 2009, said Luna. The amount has steadily increased as more schools are brought online.
  • The Idaho congressional delegation received a briefing from the Federal Communications Commission this week. And they were told that the Universal Service Administrative Company, the FCC’s contractor, will conduct its own review of Idaho’s 2009 broadband contract. The delegation was given no timetable for the review.
  • USAC’s review is separate from a protracted lawsuit over the Idaho Education Network contract. A week ago, Luna indicated to legislative budget-writers that the federal funding was on hold, pending court appeals. On Thursday, Luna painted a different picture. “USAC is doing its own individual review. … We could win in court and USAC will do its own review.”
  • This is the first time USAC has reviewed state funding for the Idaho Education Network. But the contractor has conducted similar reviews of so-called “e-rate” funding — collected from phone bills and distributed to local school districts, she said. A review in the Caldwell School District took 20 months; a review in the Troy School District took two years.
Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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