School districts may be saving big money by shopping around for new broadband vendors, but the short-range bargains don’t tell the whole story.
That was the assessment Thursday from John Goedde, Gov. Butch Otter’s point man on the convoluted Idaho Education Network crisis.
“We’re seeing reports on quantity,” Goedde said during a City Club of Boise forum Thursday. “We’re not seeing reports on quality.”
The questions over cost savings — or the lack of savings — are a key component in the long-term debate over the Idaho Education Network’s future. Even though the current network is defunct, its contract voided in court, state officials have started the process of pursuing a new statewide high school broadband contract. That deal won’t be in place until 2016 — and only then could the state again receive a generous match from federally administered telephone surcharges.
In the meantime, with no statewide option, the districts are going it alone. They had roughly two weeks to select vendors and submit their contracts to the state for reimbursement.
Last week, the State Department of Education and the Legislative Services Office both issued reports showing that school districts are receiving more broadband capacity, at lower costs, through their short-term contracts. About half of the state’s school districts and charter high schools stayed with Education Networks of America, the main contractor on the defunct network project, while the rest went with a patchwork of providers.
All told, districts and charters are paying less than $2 million for broadband through the rest of the 2014-15 school year, at a cost of $158.41 per megabit per second, according to the LSO’s analysis. The Idaho Education Network system would have cost more than $3.1 million, with a price per unit of $403.82 per Mbps.
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Goedde and Idaho Education Network officials attribute the cost disparities to three factors:
- Schools are buying “commodity” broadband — basically, the same high-speed Internet that providers offer to commercial or residential customers. The Idaho Education Network offered districts and charters managed Internet service, with enhanced access and tech support.
- The Idaho Education Network project paid the up-front cost to provide high-speed Internet to remote communities, and schools are now reaping the savings.
- Internet providers have slashed costs, providing service at a fraction of the prices they charged Idaho Education Network contractors. Those discounts might not last, said Goedde.
Nonetheless, two school district superintendents told City Club members that they will shop around for broadband service in 2015-16 — since it appears that the Legislature will want districts to secure their own service next school year.
The Kuna School District stayed with ENA for the rest of the 2014-15 school year, because the district didn’t want to risk a disruption in service while switching vendors. But the district will use a new vendor in 2015-16, Superintendent Wendy Johnson said.
The Weiser School District also wanted to avoid downtime, and stayed with ENA. On Friday, district officials will look at three bids for 2015-16, including one from ENA, Superintendent Wil Overgaard said.
Nonetheless, Overgaard said he would like to see Idaho again write a statewide managed service contract for school broadband.
Disclosure: Kevin Richert is a City Club of Boise board member, and he organized Thursday’s forum.