Broadband: Who wants to vie for the next contract?

As the self-labeled Idaho Education Network “incumbent,” Education Networks of America is urging the state to stick with a reliable, cost-effective statewide school broadband system.

Syringa Networks, the Idaho company that has successfully fought the Idaho Education Network contract in court, says Idaho can save money in the future with multiple, shorter-term contracts.

The two Internet providers are among several companies that are starting to jockey for the big prize that could be waiting at the end of the Idaho Education Network maze: a long-term contract to provide broadband to the state’s high schools.

While local districts scramble to cut short-term deals to keep high-speed Internet through the rest of the school year, the state Department of Administration is beginning the process to award a new Idaho Education Network contract in 2016. The deal would replace the current $60 million contract, declared void by a district judge, and could finally allow the state to receive federal funding for the network for the first time since 2013.

The first phase of this contract process is a “request for information” — a chance for would-be bidders to spell out their ideas and vision for a statewide network. The RFIs are not a formal bid for the next network contract. The state won’t begin soliciting formal bids until June. However, the RFIs offer an early insight into which companies are jockeying for what figures to be a multimillion dollar contract — and how they might approach the job.

Six companies filled out RFI paperwork, which was due Feb. 15. Idaho Education News received the responses from the Department of Administration.

The responses vary widely in length, sophistication and tone. ENA, for example, submitted a 26-page document; Integra Telecom submitted a 321-word email. At least two respondents questioned the Administration Department’s motives; Post Falls-based Ednetics wrote to “respectfully decline” responding to the state’s request.

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Here’s a thumbnail look at the six submissions (with links to the documents):

ENA. The lead vendor under the failed 2009 network contract, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company touts its Idaho resume. “As the incumbent all we can say is that we demonstrated our capabilities by exceeding all expectations by delivering the (network) service a year ahead of schedule and 16 percent below budget.”

ENA admonishes the state to stay the course. A statewide contract will yield cost savings that school districts could not negotiate on their own or in small groups. Having an individual company apply for “e-Rate” dollars — the federally administered phone surcharges that have been on hold since 2013 over the contract dispute — would save “significant time, personnel resources and potential consultant charges.”

The company also admonishes the state to stick with a known quantity. “The state cannot afford to have a service provider who is doing this for the first time, learning on your dime.”

Syringa. The Boise company argues that the state’s five-year contract with ENA and CenturyLink — renewed, without legislators’ knowledge, in 2014 — wind up costing the state money in the long run. A statewide contractor has no incentive to pass along cost savings. This results in markups in broadband circuitry — a threefold increase, in one case. When the state is locked into a five-year contract, it cannot realize cost savings as technology prices drop.

“With respect to the (network), every taxpayer dollar paid in excess to a controlling third party is a dollar not available for classroom supplies, teacher compensation, and other strategic initiatives. Unfortunately, the current network design and implementation of the (network) fosters this type of inefficiency.”

Syringa recommends contracts of no longer than three years, bidding on circuitry on a school-by-school basis and awarding separate contracts for schools and state agencies.

Ednetics. In a one-page letter to the Administration Department, company president Shawn Swanby criticized the process.

“The framework of the RFI does not provide a structure for a new vision for the state of Idaho and does not readily allow for open debate and discussion of options that are outside of the current (network) structure,” he wrote. “We hope to provide our vision to the State of Idaho in a format that provides a fresh start rather than using a format that brings so many flawed concepts forward.”

Like ENA, Ednetics is actively soliciting for short-term broadband contracts with districts.

First Step Internet. The state’s RFI displays a “not-so-subtle bias” for providing broadband through fiber alone, says Kevin Owen of the Moscow-based provider. The state’s language implies “that alternative options would not be seriously entertained if they were presented to you.”

Specifically, Owen suggests the state should consider microwave technology that could provide comparable service to rural districts, at far less cost. “Personally, as taxpayers, we think that this metric is the most important one of all.”

Cisco Systems. The San Jose, Calif.-based communications giant suggests the state prepare for the future “by being prepared for mobile solutions, big data intelligence, and Idaho-based cloud services.” The company suggests a regionalized approach to broadband, by establishing satellite “points of preference” in Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Boise or Meridian, Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls and Hailey.

Integra. The state should set up two to four regional broadband hubs statewide, said Bill Olson, a sales manager in the company’s office in Renton, Wash. The state could consider outsourcing project management and e-Rate programs, but remain in charge of the procurement of all services.

 

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