Broadband: Some districts switch and save, others stay put

(UPDATED, 1:47 p.m. Friday, with updates from Boundary County and Kuna districts.)

Some school districts are signing new, short-term contracts with broadband providers — at big savings.

Other districts are sticking with the team that provided broadband under the failed Idaho Education Network contract.

Then there’s the remote South Lemhi School District. The Central Idaho district is taking its negotiations down to the wire — and is worried about costs. Other districts across Idaho were sifting through bids this week — from the Boundary County district that borders Canada, to Ada County’s rural Kuna district to the Fremont County district in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park.

For all districts, Friday is the deadline. If they don’t have contracts in place, Education Networks of America has threatened to pull the service it has provided under the statewide broadband network contract. The districts can apply for a share of $3.6 million, set aside by Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature to cover the cost of short-term contracts.

Still, it’s up to districts to cut their own deals. So, what are they doing? Here’s an unscientific sample, dispatches from around the state: 

Cutting ties with the network 

Meridian IEN II
An Idaho Education Network Spanish class in West Ada School District’s Meridian High School.

West Ada. The state’s largest district pulled the plug on ENA this week. West Ada signed a deal with Zayo, a local provider that already provides 200 megabits of broadband to its elementary and middle schools. Zayo will receive $4,200 a month to provide 500 megabits to the high schools; the Idaho Education Network service had a cost of $4,965.50 per month.

Nampa. Like West Ada, Nampa is looking to expand on its contract with Zayo. Costs have not yet been determined, district spokeswoman Allison Westfall said.

Nampa’s Idaho Education Network service had cost $3,787 a month.

Coeur d’Alene. The district is expanding its service with Ednetics, a Post Falls-based provider. The district will pay Ednetics $4,750 a month for what basically amounts to unlimited broadband, on the order of 1,000 megabits. The expanded contract with Ednetics will cost the district an additional $1,500 a month, said spokeswoman Laura Rumpler — but the Idaho Education Network service cost $12,757.84 per month for 200 megabits.

Lake Pend Oreille. The Ponderay-based district switched over Monday, also to Ednetics, at about a third of the $24,172 per month for Idaho Education Network service. “The switch was very seamless,” district technology director Randy Wittwer said.

Blaine County. The district will buy more bandwidth from Syringa Networks, the Boise company that successfully sued the state over the network’s 2009 contract. The district will buy another 100 megabits from Syringa, for about $400 a month. The same service cost $2,547 a month under the Idaho Education Network.

The district had enjoyed the security of having two redundant systems, district technology director Tim Rocco said, but not at the added price.

“That’s just a risk we’re going to have to take,” he said.

Teton. The Eastern Idaho district will go back to a familiar entity — Silver Star, a local phone company that had provided broadband before the advent of the network. Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme does not expect any loss in bandwidth.

“We viewed IEN as an upgrade in bandwidth and in videoconferencing (technology), but we had previously been able to provide the service,” Superintendent he said. “Our local Internet provider has recognized our need for additional bandwidth and responded … to keep up with local demand.”

Teton is still working out costs with Silver Star. According to state documents, 100 megabits of Idaho Education Network bandwidth in Teton cost $19,391.84 a month.

Boundary County. The district made a switchover Thursday morning, going from ENA to a Bonners Ferry Internet provider, EL Internet Northwest.

The district should get as much bandwidth, or more, and for less money. Under the Idaho Education Network contract, 66 megabits cost $15,522 per month. EL will charge the district $5,000 per month for 66 megabits, and may expand to 100 megabits, said Robin Merrifield, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Staying with the network, and ENA

Weiser. The district, which extensively uses the network’s videoconferencing equipment to export and import classes, will stay put.

A local vendor said it would need at least a week to connect to the school, and a month or more to approximate the 50 megabits provided by the network.

“We chose to stay with ENA/CenturyLink to avoid any interruption of services for the rest of this school year,” Superintendent Wil Overgaard said.

Weiser’s Idaho Education Network service costs $2,234.50 monthly.

Kuna. After reviewing five proposals, the district opted to stay with ENA. “In the end, ENA was the only vendor who could provide the necessary bandwidth and no interruption of service,” said assistant superintendent Devan DeLashmutt.

Twin Falls. The district will stay with its broadband contracts with ENA. That includes the high school broadband service, which carried a monthly price tag of $3,787.

Cassia County. Like Weiser, Cassia County also is a big user of the network’s videoconferencing services. And for Cassia County, continuity was a big concern, and that prompted the district to stand pat.

“This is the best solution/scenario in light of the testing window opening up and seniors finishing required courses,” spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said. “Changing IP addresses and changing out equipment at this point in the school year was problematic at best.”

The district’s Idaho Education Network service costs $3,202 a month.

South Lemhi. For one of the state’s smallest and most secluded school districts, broadband doesn’t come cheap. The Idaho Education Network service, which provides 9 megabits, runs $7,673,45 a month.

Superintendent/principal Michael Jacobson said he will probably sign a short-term deal with ENA by Friday’s deadline, but he is concerned about what will happen if the state doesn’t fully reimburse his district. He hopes ENA will give his district some leeway. If not, he said, the district may go without Internet — and may be unable to administer the online Idaho Standards Achievement Test this spring.

Jacobson’s doesn’t have many other options for the district’s Leadore School, a K-12 school with 74 students. Other would-be providers have said they would need at least 30 business days to provide service. “We’ve been reaching out to companies to get them to bid, but on such a tight time frame it’s very difficult.”

Reported and compiled in Boise by Kevin Richert. Additional reporting from David Keyes in North Idaho and Nate Sunderland in Eastern Idaho.

More reading: While districts muddle through the short term, companies start jockeying for the next big broadband contract.

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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