Lawmakers review use of broadband

Before lawmakers can craft a future for technology in Idaho schools, they first want to understand its history and current use — setting the stage for Tuesday’s first meeting of the Broadband Access Legislative Study Committee.

The 10 lawmakers on the interim committee listened to nearly seven hours of presentations in an effort to evenutally decide what role the state has in providing high-speed Internet to schools, communities and state agencies.

The committee members asked multiple questions of those presenting — state leaders and educators — but concluded with almost no discussion. They agreed to first hear from more players in the broadband debate, including vendors, study what’s happening in other states and meet again in late August.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer

“I want all the input, as much as I can get, up front,” said co-chair Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls. “We are one or two meetings away from developing proposals.”

The committee was formed in response to a court ruling earlier this year that dismantled a statewide broadband system and required districts to secure short-term broadband service on their own.

Sen. Bart Davis, a member of the committee and a Republican attorney from Idaho Falls, dominated questioning for more than 30 minutes in efforts to understand why Idaho lost a ruling that will cost millions.

“I want to understand what happened in an effort to not repeat past unlawful performances,” Davis said.

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Sen. Bart Davis

Greg Zickau, the chief technology officer for the Idaho Department of Administration, took the brunt of Davis’ questioning during his presentation about the broadband purchasing process, which set the stage for Judge Patrick Owen to void a $60 million broadband contract. Owen said the amended broadband contract was illegal and could not be salvaged in any part. Owen ruled that the rewrite — and the state’s February 2009 decision to award contracts to CenturyLink and Education Networks of America — constituted “the initial step in a flawed process that violated several provisions of Idaho code.”

Since Idaho is starting over in its broadband endeavors, lawmakers were interested in Will Goodman’s presentation. He represented the Idaho Education Technology Association as its president but he also is the former chief technology officer for the State Department of Education. He held the position for about six months before returning to Mountain Home to be its technology director.

The IETA recommended the state:

  • Not return to managing a statewide network.
  • Support a “service agency” that can help schools in a variety of capacities, such as in bidding processes or filing for federal reimbursement funds (E-rate dollars). Districts could opt-out — or opt-in — to any necessary services.
  • Ensure broadband access is equitable. Richer districts should not have better connections and equipment.
  • Provide funding and technical support.
  • Be removed from politics and be transparent.

“The program should create a synergy that allows private broadband providers to support broadband development everywhere in the state and support broadband for entire communities,” Goodman said.

Davis asked Goodman to have his recommendations reviewed by attorneys to make sure state law is being followed. Davis also encourage anyone with ideas or plans to submit them to the interim committee and continue developing them.

Representatives from four Idaho school districts also presented on Tuesday and all said costs for and access to broadband services is much better now since the state relinquished control back to the districts.

Local service providers have offered big discounts and provided more bandwidth, according to school officials from Sugar-Salem, Idaho Falls, Boise and Coeur d’Alene.

“We’ve had few if any problems — it’s been smooth,” said Sugar-Salem Superintendent Alan Dunn about the transition. “We’re paying substantially less and bandwidth is higher now that before.”

The Coeur d’Alene School District illustrated the largest gains from its new local control. Director of Technology Seth Deniston said bandwidth in Coeur d’Alene’s 16 schools is four times greater from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year while costs decreased from $14,000 per month to $2,000.

“We’re able to get a great deal in part because of our location on the I-90 corridor,” Deniston said. “Internet access is like air, if we don’t have it in schools our teachers can’t breath.”

School officials all emphasized to lawmakers that broadband services have become essential to education.

“The use of internet has changed teaching for the better in a tremendous way,” Dunn said. “Schools would shut down without it. We can’t go back to blackboards or whiteboards.”

Dunn said kids use the Internet for research — Encyclopedias are ancient and dust-covered — and for regular communication.

Broadband also is critical to daily operations from taking attendance to giving assessments to phone services and security measures.

“The Internet is becoming a utility as vital to education as power and water,” Goodman said. “The Internet is used to deliver classes, provide access to books, provide access to research and deliver business softwares.”

Davis asked Dunn what he would most like the committee to take away from the study into broadband services.

“We must have funding for broadband access and we need help,” Dunn said.