Another hitch in the Idaho broadband dispute

The long legal battle over the Idaho Education Network broadband contract is showing no signs of a ceasefire.

Syringa Networks, the telecommunications company suing over the 2009 broadband contract, is demanding $17 million to settle the dispute, deputy attorney general Scott Zanzig says. Syringa made the demand during a recent mediation session.

This latest development in the convoluted broadband mess raises two questions that could ultimately affect taxpayers.

First, there’s the question of who would pay any possible settlement to Syringa. The two companies that hold the bulk of the broadband contract, CenturyLink and Education Networks of America, believe they have done enough to incorporate Syringa into the project, and aren’t inclined to pay out.

“That would leave the Idaho taxpayer on the hook,” Zanzig said Tuesday, at a meeting of the Idaho Education Network’s Program Resource Advisory Council, the government panel that oversees the broadband system.

The lawmakers and the education stakeholders who sit on IPRAC didn’t seem inclined to bargain. One council member, House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, labeled the Syringa request “outrageous.”

Second, there is the lingering question over federally administered payments for Idaho broadband. This money, collected as surcharges on phone bills, is supposed to cover three-fourths of the Idaho Education Network budget, but has been on hold for more than 18 months. With mediation at an impasse, that means the contract lawsuit remains in play — and the lawsuit is the main reason the federal payments are on hold.

A state district court heard arguments on the lawsuit Friday, Zanzig said. It’s unclear when the District Court may rule — and even then, parties could appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Universal Service Administrative Company, the federal contractor that administers the phone surcharges, could decide to free up the money on its own. But Zanzig said it’s unlikely USAC will act until the District Court issues its ruling.

The 2014 Legislature forked over $11.4 million to replace the phone surcharges, enough to keep the broadband network online through February. Lawmakers may be asked to come up with $2.4 million to keep the system online from March 1 through June 30, the end of the 2014-15 budget year.

 

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