Schools across the nation have 20 more days than originally announced to apply for this year’s eRate discounts. The new filing deadline is 11:59 p.m. EST, March 11. But, because schools must post their eRate application for 28 days, the effective deadline for paperwork is Feb. 11.

At a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 15, the board of directors for the Schools and Libraries Corp. (SLC) voted to extend the filing window for 1999-2000 eRate applications. For purposes of funding decisions, all applications filed before the new deadline will be treated as if they arrived on the same day.

Previously, the window had been set to close on Feb. 19. But delays in issuing funding-commitment letters for the program’s first year prompted a review of the filing period.

“It’s our goal to give schools and libraries who applied [in 1998] a chance to know their funding status before they apply again for [1999],” said Kate Moore, the agency’s acting chief executive officer.

The SLC was not expected to issue its final wave of commitment letters until “the end of January,” Moore told the board.

In extending the window, the board had to adopt an application period that takes into account two separate, but related, objectives: The filing period must give schools and libraries time to review current funding levels and prepare their next applications and give the SLC sufficient time to project next year’s demand.

The SLC is required to give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a funding projection no later than April 1. This, to allow the FCC time to calculate how much it must collect from telecommunications companies to pay for the eRate through the second half of 1999.

The extended window means schools have until Feb. 11 to post a Form 470 on the SLC’s web site and still submit their applications on time. SLC rules require a Form 470 to be posted to the agency’s web site for 28 days, allowing companies to bid for the requested services, before a school can complete the application process by filing a Form 471.

Some schools left out

Moore also told the board that schools and libraries qualifying for discounts of less than 50 percent won’t receive funding for internal connections for 1998. “We’re aware of the demand among the applicant community to know what the threshold for funding of internal connections will be this year,” she said. “Based on what we know so far, we can safely say that those who fall below the 50-percent discount level will not be funded for internal connections.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that all schools qualifying for discounts of 50 percent and above will be funded, Moore told the board; the SLC has yet to determine exactly how far the funds will stretch.

But knowing they won’t be funded, schools and libraries with discounts below the 50-percent threshold can make plans accordingly, Moore said. Funding commitment letters will be sent to these applicants in the next few waves as well, since the SLC now can make funding decisions based on their applications.

Merger with USAC approved

Besides extending the filing deadline, the SLC board met to vote on the proposed Jan. 1 merger of the SLC and the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC). The board unanimously approved the merger.

Under the terms of the merger, the SLC will become a division of USAC and its board a committee of USAC’s board. The SLC will continue to administer the eRate, but under management of USAC and with more outsourcing of functions.

The merger is expected to have little impact on the eRate, other than possibly speeding the approval of invoices and actual payments to vendors–two steps in the processing of discounts currently being handled separately by the SLC and USAC, respectively.

Other eRate news

Moore said the SLC will continue its practice of mailing funding-notification letters to applicants in “waves” for year two.

The agency’s goal is to complete all waves by July 1, the date that services are scheduled to start. To reach its goal, the SLC will have to double its productivity. Moore gave two reasons she believes this is possible:

(1) Schools and libraries will be able to file Form 471 online this year, allowing the SLC to speed p the entry of applications into its computer system.

(2) The SLC will be able to draw on its first-year experience to begin a program-integrity assurance review as soon as it receives an application, a procedure that should help eliminate backlogs at the end of the application cycle.

Schools and Libraries Corp.