Lawmakers: No Idaho Education Network, Version 2.0

On Friday, lawmakers took one more step away from the imploded Idaho Education Network broadband system.

A House-Senate “interim committee” spent the afternoon kicking around motions and ideas for providing high-speed Internet in the schools.

In their first motion, approved unanimously, committee members said what they didn’t want: another statewide system that “mirrors” the Idaho Education Network.

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Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls

“Let’s not have a state solution for every district,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “Let’s not go back to what we were doing.”

If anything, the committee wants to keep going with the state’s current Plan B: a blend of local Internet contracts with an assortment of contractors. Lawmakers voted to continue that approach through 2016-17, while the 2016 Legislature takes a closer look at broadband issues.

The committee’s recommendations are just that: recommendations. But they could help shape the tone of the broadband debate, when the 2016 session convenes on Jan. 11.

The committee’s support of the status quo comes as little surprise.

After Ada County District Judge Patrick Owen voided the Idaho Education Network contract 12 months ago, the 2015 Legislature mothballed the system. That move left districts to secure broadband coverage on their own — and in many cases, districts quickly acquired more bandwidth for less money.

For 2015-16 high-school broadband costs are projected to come in at $1.3 million; legislators had projected the cost at $6.3 million.

Committee members seemed comfortable with allowing districts to continue to shop for Internet access on the open market.

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Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow

“We need to bolster this marketplace,” said Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow.

Friday marked the fourth day of meetings for the interim committee, created in the waning hours of the 2015 session, and assigned “to undertake and complete a study of and make recommendations for broadband services and governance.”

In other recommendations Friday:

  • Lawmakers said the state should provide technical and contract support to districts. That would including helping districts apply for federally administered “e-Rate” funds that can be used as matching money for broadband systems.
  • Lawmakers said school districts should make a “good faith effort” to seek e-Rate funding, to cut the state’s costs.
  • Lawmakers said the state should break down any barriers that would prevent school districts from collaborating on broadband systems.

The interim committee’s work isn’t done, and its next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 21. The legislative resolution creating the committee also called for a review of state agencies’ Internet needs. On Friday afternoon, the committee tabled that discussion, focusing instead on Internet needs in schools and public libraries.