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Idaho Legislature Passes Short-Term Fix for Broadband Issue

Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter recently signed legislation allocating $3.64 million to be sent to the state Department of Education to reimburse school districts for independently securing contracts with broadband providers. This measure is designed to prevent schools from losing access to free or low-cost Internet this year due to a judge's ruling that voided the Idaho Education Network's $60 million broadband contract

"Something had to be done," said John Goedde, the former chairman of the Idaho Senate Education Committee who was appointed by Otter, a Republican, to help legislators address the broadband issue. Goedde supports the appropriation, signed by Otter on Feb. 25,  and said that now all Idaho school districts are "in position to secure contracts" to keep their broadband networks up and running.

The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate, and received a single "no" vote in the House from Democratic Rep. John Gannon. Gannon called his vote a "protest vote" because he felt the issue should have been resolved sooner, but said the bill was "the only choice they had." 

Superintendents and administrators are "happy with the plan," said Rob Winslow, the executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators. "The legislature really stepped up." The process of securing the independent contracts by school district has been "pretty seamless," Winslow said. Districts are seeing "healthy competition" among broadband providers, and even remote districts now have several choices of vendors, he said.

Although Goedde speculates that there may be some "dark times" due to reprogramming for districts who want to change providers, he does not anticipate any long-term problems arising from the transition. To help evaluate the new approach to broadband, Gannon said the legislature will receive a report on March 10 from the superintendent of public instruction containing feedback from each district about its new broadband service.

While the bill only provides funding for broadband through the end of the school year, Goedde said it is likely that there will be more money appropriated in the next fiscal year for schools to continue purchasing Internet access. He mentioned that legislators are also developing a request for proposal for a statewide broadband network to be up and running no later than July 1, 2016. 

According to Goedde, there is a general consensus among lawmakers that there is a need for a statewide broadband network. Although the Idaho Education Network, which previously provided high-speed Internet and videoconferencing for high schools statewide, is no longer functioning, Goedde predicted that the "concept of the IEN will return" in the broadband legislation in 2016.

Gannon, however, has a different outlook for the long-term broadband plan. He praised the independent contract approach for allowing districts to select broadband service that is "tailored to their unique needs and requirements, rather than a statewide mandate that may not fit every school." Gannon said his preference is for school districts to continue independently securing contracts, and doubted there would be a return to a statewide network in the future. 

Although the particulars of the long-term broadband plan remain to be seen, Goedde said the governor is "taking the initiative," and promised that "there will most assuredly be better oversight" of future statewide vendor contracts to prevent this issue from recurring.  

Gannon also emphasized the need for improved oversight, and said he is working on a proposal that would require constitutional officers to go through a procurement process for contracts that exceed $500,000. Alternatively, he suggested a law requiring contracts to be approved by the legislature each year. 


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