Now that the anti-eRate rhetoric has subsided for just a moment, it might be the perfect time for the telecommunications companies (telcos) to ponder carefully that old Indian proverb:

“Revileth not the crocodile’s mother while soaking in the Ganges.”

As our front page story details, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at press time appeared about to underfund this year’s eRate program. The upshot: eRate funding still would be substantial, but schools like yours all over America now would have to make do with millions less than they need and might otherwise have gotten.

This development is being heralded in some circles as testimony to the lobbying prowess of the telecommunications industry. But if it is a telco triumph, it might prove Pyrrhic.

The long-term costs could well turn out to be higher for the phone companies than a fully funded eRate would have. Ill will lingers, and emotions have been running high on both sides of the eRate issue. Certainly, the lobbying has been fierce.

Paul Houston, head of the American Association of School Administrators, says educators sent Congress nearly 10,000 eMail messages in May supporting the eRate and full funding.

Unfortunately, the anti-eRate forces unleashed by the telcos were even more ferocious. Toward the end of the campaign, Telco allies actually were comparing schools applying for eRate discounts to “pigs in a trough.” And articles in the Washington Post and Time magazine did their best to incite the toxic partisanship so fashionable in Washington these days. Because Vice President Gore has championed the eRate, both articles sought to disparage the program’s costs as the “Gore tax.”

This gambit was made possible because, in a highly effective PR move, the telcos promised to put an eRate “surcharge” on the telephone bills going to businesses and consumers. When this telco tactic was challenged, the companies responded in highest dudgeon, loudly defending the public’s sacred “right to know.”

In his Washington Post column, James Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute claimed the FCC was putting intense pressure on telcos to keep the surcharge secret.

But the companies might wish to tread lightly here. Some at the FCC have so wholeheartedly embraced this concept of “full disclosure” that now they’re calling for the telcos to take the idea to its logical conclusion. They say the telcos should tell the American people exactly what the companies are saving in access-charge reductions. Those reductions were extended to the telcos by the FCC to cover the eRate’s costs.

“These companies are getting substantial cost savings that the public needs to know about,” said Anne Bryant, head of the National School Boards Association. As one eRate proponent put it: The telcos should go right ahead and acknowledge that they’ve been billing the public twice.

That’s the trouble with stirring up a tempest. It can swamp a lot of things. All that bad mouthing could even whip around, like a crocodile, and bite somebody from behind.

Gregg W. Downey

Editor & Publisher