End of State Broadband Contract Means Faster Internet and Lower Costs for Rural Idaho School Districts

The end of the State mandated contract with a single broadband provider has resulted in many rural schools in southeast Idaho returning to their local internet providers this month, with great benefits for schools and taxpayers alike – specifically, more bandwidth speed for a fraction of the cost.

At 10 AM Friday morning, Rockland School District in rural Southeastern Idaho, pulled the plug on their Internet service from the IEN (Idaho Education Network), and switched to a much faster fiber-optic connection from local broadband company Direct Communications, for a fraction of the cost. While the state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying ENA (Education Networks of America) over $6,000.00 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District, for the 2016 school year the school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service.

 Rockland School District Technology Director, Rose Mathews, gives a thumbs up to her new 100Mb speed from Direct Communications, after running a speed test showing that the school is receiving a fully symmetrical 100Mb speed.

Rockland School District Technology Director, Rose Mathews, gives a thumbs up to her new 100Mb speed from Direct Communications, after running a speed test showing that the school is receiving a fully symmetrical 100Mb speed.

Rose Mathews, Technology Director for Rockland School District, said “We are very happy to be back with Direct Communications as our main service provider. The choice to go to IEN was purely a budget decision for us originally—the State provided the funding for all of our internet access, which allowed us to move our money into other things, but Rockland School District is pleased to be doing business directly with Direct Communications again. They have always been an important part of our community.”

The idea that rural Idaho schools were going to have better internet service under State control turned out to be false in many cases. For example, the Westside School District in Dayton, Idaho, was already being served by state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable by local fiber broadband provider Direct Communications way back in 2008. The local Idaho broadband company, which has been a local southeast Idaho family-owned business since 1954,  has specialized in bringing fiber to remote areas for over 10 years, but when the State IEN contract declared that schools had to use CenturyLink service to get the IEN reimbursement, Westside school district was forced to disconnect their fiber connection and switch back to an outdated T1 (1.5 Mbps) copper connection, which was a big step backwards as far as technology goes—about a decade backwards in fact. Where the district had only been paying a few hundred dollars per month for reliable fiber Internet service, once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho State taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location, and a local business was forced aside. The same thing happened with Preston School District, who just this week reactivated their fiber line through Direct Communications, which had been sitting dormant since 2009. Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed, for about a fifth of the monthly cost.

Rockland School District, a small 1A school located in a town of 295 people, found themselves in a similar situation, where despite their remote location and small size, had been enjoying a fiber optic connection for several years through local independent telecommunications company Direct Communications.  For ENA to connect to Rockland School eventually took four tiers of providers because CenturyLink has no network in Rockland —local network provider Direct Communications handed the circuit off to Idaho regional fiber network provider Syringa Networks, who delivered it to CenturyLink, who then handed it to ENA, who was listed as the final service provider.  This was standard practice for many remote districts, because CenturyLink does not have a presence in much of rural Idaho—a great number of small towns are served by local independent telephone companies, many of them started as farmers’ cooperatives. Each provider added their costs down the line. The $6,090.00 per month that state taxpayers were paying ENA for service to Rockland SD was by no means an outlier—many rural school districts were paying far more per month for service.

One of the reasons the costs skyrocketed was that under the state-wide IEN contract, all local school districts were shielded from seeing the actual cost of their Internet service. Mathews stated: “They never told us what the bill was. It was kept very quiet. I knew it was more than they needed to pay, because I knew there were multiple tiers of providers being used, but I think we were all kind of shocked by just how much the state was paying for service to some of our schools.”

Aberdeen School District Superintendent, Jane Ward, explained that she never knew what the IEN contract was costing the state until the state legislature asked for those figures to be published earlier this month. “We only knew that the state was paying 100% of our Internet service cost. Because the state was providing service to our school, it eliminated the annual paperwork I had to acquire to qualify our district for e-rate subsidies.” Mrs. Ward was extremely concerned when the school district was suddenly informed by the State Department of Education on February 16, 2015 that the school districts could be losing their Internet service as early as February 22. Mrs. Ward indicated she was fortunate enough to be able to immediately turn to their local cable provider, Direct Communications. “Direct Communications brought the school district Internet service over 12 years ago when no one else would provide it at a reasonable cost.  We have had a great relationship over the years, and I knew our school was actually being serviced by their fiber underneath the IEN layers.” Mrs. Ward went on to say, “It was an easy decision to go to Direct Communications for help.  I knew I was saving the taxpayers money by switching, and I was confident the service was going to be just as reliable as before. Direct Communications worked with our IT administrator to reconfigure the fiber connections on a Friday afternoon when school was out, and it took less than an hour.”  The ENA cost for Aberdeen School District was $6,496.28 per month for 60Mb service.  The new cost with Direct Communications fiber for the next school year will be less than a third of that cost for 100Mb service.

Lucas McHargue installs conduit for fiber optic cable to Bear Lake High School in Montpelier Idaho.

Lucas McHargue installs conduit for fiber optic cable to Bear Lake High School in Montpelier Idaho.

Direct Communications had a very busy week with crews working around the clock in three small Idaho towns this week to complete fiber builds to local school districts before the Friday E-rate deadline. Grace School District, North Gem School District, and Bear Lake School District will all be served by new fiber optic connections and faster speeds than they had before with IEN. The other important feature of this change is that these districts will now all be able to choose what bandwidth speed they want, no matter the size of their school and with the knowledge and comfort that they are using taxpayer dollars effectively.

James Murdoch, the Network Administrator of Grace School District & North Gem School District, said of his experience with Direct Communications: “With barely over a week’s notice we contacted Direct Communications with what we needed and their people jumped into action. Daniel Parrish was able to meet our difficult needs and coordinate everything, taking late-night phone calls to make it happen. Matt Farr, their engineer, was at one of our schools watching his sons in a basketball game. I was able to locate him and between games he was able to do a site survey and give an initial approval on the project. We appreciated him taking his personal time to help us. The Directcom installation crews worked long hours well into the night several nights to bring the fiber to our school. They did an outstanding job to quickly and efficiently make the project possible. Brian Black, their Senior Network Administrator, was willing to meet with us any time to help configure our equipment and actually finish with the installation. I was pleased at the courteous, quick and professional manner that each individual employee had. Rather than acting put-out by the unreasonable timeline that we had given them they took it as more of a challenge and were happy to help us achieve our needs.

2015 Grace underground tunnel

Lucas McHargue and Brenden Argyle pull fiber through an underground tunnel in Grace High School.

We are more than happy at the result and were able to meet both our short-term and long-term needs going forward.  Both School Districts were able to avoid any downtime. What could have been a challenging, miserable experience has turned into a very positive one. The additional bandwidth that we have is still at a fraction of the cost that we would have had otherwise. We are thrilled. It has been a very positive experience.”

Matt Farr wanted to thank the local contractors, Track Utilities and Das-Co who worked alongside Directcom crews and helped get fiber to the schools on time.

Mathews reflects: “The IEN was a good concept. The funding for Internet service was important, because local communities aren’t always willing to pay for adequate Internet service. The network management and the help with the routers and tech support was good. The schools still need a way to connect together to provide shared classes and video conferencing. Where the IEN went wrong was forcing everyone to use the same internet service provider for basic bandwidth. As long as they allow us to choose our own provider, I think there is a place for the IEN. I hope our legislature will still find a way to continue to cover the full cost of Internet service to schools, because that is just becoming more important each year.

For more info on the history of the IEN contract, see http://idahoptv.org/idreports/ien/