Idaho still has no answer on more than $14 million in missing federal e-rate funding for the broadband network that links all the state’s high schools, but officials say they’re at least in contact with federal officials now. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today that he brought the issue up with the chairman of the FCC when the two spoke at the same conference a couple of months ago; in a phone call an hour later, “He said he had directed USAC to engage with us, and they did,” Luna said. “It definitely got the attention of USAC.”
That’s the agency that administers the federal e-rate funds, which come from telephone fees and were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the Idaho Education Network; it’s called the Universal Service Administrative Company. Last year, lawmakers learned to their surprise that the federal money had stopped flowing due to concerns about a lawsuit challenging the award of the contract for the IEN to Education Networks of America and Qwest; that stuck the state with the full tab, at least for now.
Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the lawmakers, who were gathered at Boise High School as part of a three-day interim meeting, that the Attorney General’s office has had a conference call and sent some letters. “They seem somewhat receptive, but they’re also skeptical,” he said. “We’ve got someone that we can talk to, at this point.” Kane said the state’s trying to impress upon the federal agency the point that the services are being provided – funds haven’t been hijacked to buy someone a yacht or anything. It’s just that there’s a dispute between parties who wanted to be the ones to provide the service to schools. “Generally, they’re looking for some sort of fraudulent conduct,” he said.
Teresa Luna, director of the state Department of Administration, said the lawsuit, filed by unsuccessful bidder Syringa Networks, is continuing; a hearing on several motions in the case was held May 6, and a ruling on those is expected in a couple of weeks. “I don’t expect that we’ll hear from USAC before … mid-August,” she said. “It is still our first priority.”
JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said after the briefing, “In some ways it’s heartening. I’m a little disappointed we haven’t made more headway with the lawsuit, but it sounds to me like the appropriate contacts have been made with USAC so we can at least make our case.” Lawmakers have agreed to cover the missing federal funds only through February; if the issue isn’t resolved by then, they’d have to ante up millions more or see the broadband network connecting the state’s high schools go dark.