Progress on broadband budget impasse?

Luna, break, rectangle, 1.23.14
State Superintendent Tom Luna

State officials believe they are making progress to break a logjam over funding the Idaho Education Network broadband project.

State officials spoke by phone last week with officials from the Universal Service Administrative Company, the federal contractor that controls three-fourths of the funding for the broadband project. The two parties haven’t come to terms. But the fact that USAC is finally talking to state officials, more than a year after cutting off Idaho’s broadband funding, is a good sign, State Superintendent Tom Luna said Tuesday.

“Hopefully, in short order, we will have this all behind us,” Luna told a committee of legislators and state and school officials that oversees the broadband project.

Funding for the Idaho Education Network — a broadband system serving some 90,000 students statewide — became a contentious issue during the just-completed 2014 legislative session. Lawmakers approved $11.4 million for the network, enough to keep the program online until February 2015. But lawmakers also voiced frustration — with the USAC officials who cut off the funding, and with state officials who had not kept lawmakers in the loop over the budget crunch.

In March 2013, USAC cut off network funding — monthly “e-rate” fees collected from cell phone and landline bills. With that money on hold, legislators were forced to bail out the network to maintain broadband in high schools.

State officials, including Gov. Butch Otter, have maintained that the bailout represents a loan to the network — since they believe the feds will eventually restore the state’s e-rate funding.

After last week’s conference call, Luna is optimistic that USAC will expedite its review of the Idaho Education Network project, and a 2009 contract that remains embroiled in a lawsuit in state District Court. USAC has asked the state to answer a series of questions on the contract, and send copies of its court filings in the lawsuit. “USAC wants to quickly come to a resolution on this,” Luna said.

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This sentiment was echoed by Teresa Luna — Tom Luna’s sister, who heads the state Department of Administration that handles the broadband contract. “They are now engaged,” she said.

Several unanswered questions still surround Idaho Education Network funding. If USAC declares the state’s contract void, Idaho could be on the hook to pay back more than $13 million in past e-rate payments. It’s also possible that the feds could bar the state from applying for e-rate funding in the future.

But the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that hires USAC, has considerable latitude over e-rate funding, Tom Luna said Tuesday. Even if USAC’s ruling isn’t favorable, an FCC waiver could allow the state to receive e-rate dollars.

Luna said he has spoken with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to press Idaho’s case. He said he was able to buttonhole Wheeler at a conference last month — and get a face-to-face meeting with FCC officials to discuss the funding crisis.

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