ROCKLAND — If there is a silver lining to the mess involving the state of Idaho’s broken contract to establish the Idaho Education Network, it’s the realization that local Internet providers might be able to provide better service to small school districts for less money.
Direct Communications — formerly the Rockland Telephone Company, which was founded in 1954 — is proving the point.
“Rural schools are getting better service for cheaper prices,” said Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham Griffin.
The Idaho Education Network, which provided every Idaho high school with broadband service and videoconferencing, fell apart after a judge declared the state’s $60 million contract with Education Networks of America and CenturyLink illegal earlier this year. Districts were forced to secure Internet links elsewhere.
Last Friday morning, Rockland School District pulled the plug on their Internet service from the IEN and switched to a faster fiber-optic connection from local broadband company Direct Communications. And the move saves money.
The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.
What’s odd is that Direct Communications had been the district’s provider before the state opted to go with a statewide contract approach to Internet service for schools.
“The choice to go to IEN was purely a budget decision for us originally,” said Rockland School District Technology Director Rose Mathews. “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.”
Direct Communications has also been able to provide fiber optic service to Aberdeen, Grace, Bear Lake, North Gem, West Side and Preston.
The West Side School District in Dayton was already being served by from Direct Communications back in 2008, but when the state IEN contract declared that schools had to use CenturyLink service to get the IEN reimbursement, the district had to switch to an outdated copper T1 connection that only provided 1.5 megabits per second of speed.
Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.
Griffin said Preston was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.
“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.
A statewide approach to having a single Internet provider was misguided, according to Griffin.
“Out-of-state companies didn’t understand the landscape in Idaho,” Griffin said.
Education Networks of America or ENA is based out of Tennessee. For ENA to connect to Rockland’s schools it eventually took four tiers of providers
because CenturyLink has no network there. The local network provider, Direct Communications, handed the circuit off to Idaho regional fiber network provider Syringa Networks, which delivered it to CenturyLink, which then handed it to ENA, which 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,” Griffin said. “Each provider added their costs down the line.”
Most school districts in Idaho had no idea what the cost of the service was because the state was covering it.
“They never told us what the bill was,” Mathews said. “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 also expressed surprise at the cost to the state.
“We only knew that the state was paying 100 percent of our Internet service cost,” Ward said.
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.
“I hope the state will continue to support Internet service to the schools,” Griffin said. “But I think it’s important they give the schools the ability to choose the best speeds for the best costs.”