Idaho broadband education network faces funding crisis

By Tom Bacon

Idaho lawmakers have agreed to cover costs this year for a statewide educational broadband network, but they may also face a funding fight with the governor and the federal government next year. At the center of the brewing fiscal and political tussle is the Idaho Education Network, a 60-million dollar project meant to extend internet education across the state to students and schools. It now connects 218 Idaho high schools, allowing for videoconferencing and distance-learning applications.

The network is run by two companies - CenturyLink and a Tennessee company called Education Networks of America. But an Idaho telecom company, Syringa Networks, has sued the state, claiming the contract was illegally steered to the two winning companies by then-Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney. And the Federal Communications Commission has since then not paid the federal share of the cost, waiting instead to lear the outcome of Syringa's claim that it unfairly lost the bid.

This year's federal share comes to more than 6-million dollars, which the Idaho Joint Finance Appropriations Committee has agreed to pay. But state lawmakers have balked at committing the state to future funding, even though Governor Butch Otter has lobbied for it. One Republican senator said - quoting - that's another battle to be resolved later this session.

Idaho's congressional delegation has picked up rumbles that the FCC may demand its money back, leaving the state to foot the entire broadband education bill.
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