The extension of the filing window to April 6 is likely to be just the first of several changes to the eRate in the coming weeks. In a series of meetings with FCC and SLD officials, members of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and representatives from 14 states offered a list of proposals they felt required immediate attention if the program is to continue successfully.
The initial meeting took place with FCC officials Jan. 19, at which time the states presented their concerns. Follow-up meetings were held with SLD officials Jan. 20 and again with officials from both agencies Feb. 1.
Proposals were generally short-term fixes to help applicants through the current funding year. One proposal asked the agencies to see that all funding commitment letters were issued by Feb. 1, which didn’t happen. But the SLD did extend the filing window to accommodate those applicants notified among the last few waves of letters.
State representatives were encouraged by the meetings. In a Feb. 3 conference call , FCC officials said they are taking action on a number of the states’ proposals and expect final decisions by the end of the month.
At press time, these were still only proposals and none were yet official.
Extend the period that schools have to install their internal connections
It would be virtually impossible for most applicants receiving their funding commitment letters in late February to complete their internal wiring projects by June 30, as the current rules require. The states asked for a six-month extension of the period that schools have to install wiring under the 1998-1999 program year, to Dec. 31. The FCC is moving to extend the period at least through the summer. This extension would apply to one-time connection fees for telecommunications services as well.
Fund all telecommunications contracts through June 30, 1999, regardless of when they expired
When the FCC extended the current funding year to June 30, 1999, it ruled that all contracts for telecommunications and internet service expiring before Dec. 31, 1998 could not be extended. The states asked the agency to reconsider its decision because applicants thought they were only filing for funding through Dec. 31 when they applied last year.
According to Art Sheekey, director of learning technologies for CCSSO, the FCC’s decision could cost some school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. The School District of Philadelphia’s contract for telecommunications services, for example, expired Oct. 15. The FCC’s ruling could cost the city nearly nine months of funding, or almost half the length of the new program year.
The FCC is reconsidering its decision and is likely to allow extensions or additional funding for affected applicants.
Let applicants make changes within Funding Request Numbers (FRNs)
Because the program was new and the rules weren’t always clear, some applicants included more than one service provider within a single funding line item last yearsuch as lumping local and long distance services together, though they’re provided by different vendors.
Up to now, the SLD has said it wouldn’t allow you to make changes within a particular FRNso you couldn’t request the agency to split funding of an FRN between your local and long-distance service providers, to use the example above. The SLD’s advice has been to work out the arrangements with vendors yourselves.
Officials from the state of Virginia, however, believe such a policy is ill-advised, especially with a program as regulated and confusing as the eRate. They argued that the SLD has the authority to act on this issue without consulting the FCC. A decision on this issue was expected from the SLD soon.
Reaffirm and rely on local and state procurements
State officials wanted the FCC to recognize state master contracts as eRate-eligible, even if they weren’t bid within the filing window. According to observers, it’s unlikely the FCC will recognize this request.
Use any unspent money to fund 1998 applications
As of now, the SLD’s plan is to take any funds that are committed but not spent this year and roll them over into next year’s fund. State officials want any unspent funds to be applied toward the 1998-1999 program year, either to resolve all appeals and corrections issues or to fund internal connections for applicants whose discount percentage fell below the cut-off point.
Clarify and expedite the appeals process
Several states expressed frustration with the current appeals process. They noted that many applicants still haven’t heard anything on appeals they filed earlier last year, when their applications were rejected outright for not meeting the SLD’s minimum standards for processing.
The states also sought clarification of the FCC’s ruling on whether funds would be withheld during the appeals process. For example, if you asked for a discount of 68 percent and the SLD changed your discount rate to 60 percent in your funding commitment letterwithout your permission and, in your opinion, wronglywould you still get the 60 percent discount while you appealed for the extra 8 percent?
During the Feb. 3 conference call, SLD president Kate Moore said her interpretation of the ruling would be that the uncontested portion of an FRN would be funded while you wait for your appeal. FCC officials, however, have declined to comment.
Convene a series of sessions to streamline the eRate
State officials called for a series of summits to look into how the program could further be improved. If any action is taken on this suggestion, it wouldn’t be likely to affect the current program year.
States that participated in the discussions were Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.
For the latest information on the states’ proposals, keep watching the SLD’s web site.