Vendor: School broadband savings should hold

(UPDATED, 5:08 p.m., with final details from Monday’s hearing.)

Idaho school districts should continue to secure high-speed Internet at a low price, one Internet provider told lawmakers Monday.

Greg Lowe, interim committee
Greg Lowe, CEO of Syringa Networks in Boise, speaks to lawmakers Monday. A legislative committee is studying state broadband needs, in the wake of the Idaho Education Network contract fiasco.

But vendor after vendor urged Idaho lawmakers to allow districts to continue shopping around — and to allow free-market competition to keep prices low.

A procession of technology CEOs spoke Monday to 10 lawmakers who are wrestling with a daunting job. The legislators are supposed to find a course to move past the Idaho Education Network, a defunct statewide broadband system, and present recommendations to their colleagues during the 2016 legislative session.

On Monday, lawmakers heard plenty of Idaho Education Network postmortem. They heard from Greg Lowe — the CEO of Syringa Networks, the Boise-based company that successfully sued to overturn the statewide Idaho Education Network contract. Lowe began his talk with a veiled reference to the protracted legal battle: “I thought heavily of what I might come up and talk about.”

Lawmakers also sat in on a trade show of sorts — as vendors pitched the advantages of using a menu of fiber, cable and microwave technologies to provide high-speed Internet to Idaho’s schools.

“There is definitely a demand out there, and a need,” said Nate Bondelid of Tek-Hut Inc., an Idaho-based company providing microwave-based broadband services to about 25 Idaho school districts.

Tek-Hut was among the vendors that capitalized on the demise of the Idaho Education Network, a state-run system that provided broadband to nearly every high school in the state. The network began to collapse 11 months ago, when Ada County District Judge Patrick Owen sided with Syringa and voided the network’s $60 million contract. In February, Owen reaffirmed his ruling — leaving school districts a matter of days to scramble to secure replacement broadband systems.

About the committee: A 10-member panel, known as a legislative “interim committee,” has been assigned to study broadband options for Idaho schools and state agencies. Lawmakers put together the committee earlier this year, in the aftermath of the Idaho Education Network fiasco. The panel held its first meeting in July.

Some districts went with contractors who had been on the outside of the broadband market, such as Syringa and Tek-Hut. Others stuck with Education Networks of America, the lead contractor on the Idaho Education Network.

One surprising trend emerged. Districts were able to find high-speed Internet for the remainder of the 2014-15 school year in relatively short order — often buying more capacity at a lower price. Based on preliminary figures, costs for 2015-16 are rising, but are expected to come in well below the price tag for the Idaho Education Network.

Those lower prices should hold, Lowe told the committee. Schools and state agencies also have a built-in advantage; their peak usage occurs during the day, while home Internet usage peaks in the evening. The market also works in the schools’ favor. The Internet is a competitive sector, and prices have dropped over the past five years.

But in order for school districts to take advantage of a competitive market, they must be able to shop locally and have the option of opting out of a statewide system. There may be a place for a statewide option, but competition will require the state’s contractor to provide better service to districts. “If you aren’t providing value to them, then why are you doing it in the first place?” asked Shawn Swanby, the CEO of Ednetics, a Post Falls-based vendor.

The old Idaho Education Network didn’t just cut out local competition; it required all school districts to run their Internet through a Boise-based “hub,” said Lowe.

That structure was based on what turned out to be a flawed premise, he said. The Idaho Education Network was touted as a system that would allow schools to share courses — using videoconferencing equipment to link classrooms in different districts and different time zones. This was the network’s “holy grail,” said Lowe. The courses didn’t materialize to the extent that state officials had hoped.

The interim committee has another full-day hearing scheduled for Tuesday. An ENA representative is among Tuesday’s scheduled speakers.

At this point, the committee isn’t talking much about its next steps — offering recommendations on broadband for schools and state agencies. The committee is likely to meet again in November, and should have a “pointed discussion” about recommendations at that time, said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the committee’s co-chairman.

But after the day’s presentations, House Minority Leader John Rusche saw promise for the future. The committee has the chance to help chart a high-tech for schools, state agencies and the health care sector. “The opportunities are really there, and we’ve got to get in the game,” said Rusche, D-Lewiston.