On Dec. 1, 1998 the SLC began accepting applications for the 1999-2000 eRate. The new window opened just as applicants were beginning to see the fruits of their labors from last year. (See story, left.) According to Jodie Buenning Pozo-Olano, deputy director of outreach and communications for the SLC, more than 1,000 Forms 470 were filed within the first week of the window’s launch.

All K-12 schools, public or private, qualify for the program—which provides discounts of 20 to 90 percent on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections—if they are nonprofit and do not have an endowment exceeding $50 million.

Services eligible for eRate discounts include the installation, maintenance, and operating costs of all commercially available telecommunications systems, internet access (including communications links to internet service providers and eMail), and internal connections (including routers, hubs, and network file servers).

Services and products that aren’t covered include staff development, voice mail, fax machines, modems, electrical upgrades, building infrastructure, and computers or software. However, computers used solely as switches or file servers, and the software necessary to operate them, are eligible for discounts.

Applying for the eRate is a three-step process. First, you must submit a Form 470, which describes the eligible services you intend to purchase. Your Form 470 is then posted to the SLC’s web site for 28 days so vendors can bid for your services.

Once you’ve signed a contract (or once the 28-day posting period is over, for services already under contract), you must file a Form 471, which details the services you’re applying for discounts on. New this year: You can file Form 471 online. The online form includes pop-up help screens to walk you through the application process.

Finally, after you get your funding commitment letter, you must file a Form 486 to confirm that contracted services have begun. This lets the SLC know to begin issuing funds to your vendors, who in turn pass along discounts to you in the form of a check or credit.

At press time, the length of the filing window for the 1999-2000 program year was 80 days. For your application to be considered with the others as if they arrived on the same day, you need to file a Form 471 on or before Feb. 19, 1999—which means you should file your Forms 470 on or before Jan. 21, 1999, to allow for the 28-day posting period.

Because about 90 percent of last year’s applicants had not received their funding commitment letters before the start of the 1999-2000 program year, however, the SLC was considering extending the filing window beyond 80 days, at least for those first-year applicants. Check the SLC’s web site or visit eSchool News Online for the final word on the window’s closing date.

In theory, up to $2.25 billion in funding is available each year. But pressure from some members of Congress and from telecommunications companies—which subsidize the eRate through fees collected by the FCC—caused the agency to cut funding to $1.3 billion (with a six-month extension providing an additional $600 million) during the first program year.

In the same action, the FCC changed the funding priority in mid-program. Requests for discounts on telecommunications services and internet access now are approved first, and any money left in the fund is distributed to schools and libraries for their internal wiring projects according to need—so a school or district qualifying for an 80 percent discount receives priority over a 70 percent school, and so on.

If you’re applying for funding during the 1999-2000 program year, you’ll want to consider the FCC’s new rules of priority as you prepare your application. Unfortunately, the FCC is not expected to set next year’s funding level until after you’ve applied, making it difficult to plan your eRate strategy.

Forms and their instructions can be obtained from the SLC’s web site or via the agency’s fax on demand service at (800) 959-0733.