With a new law forcing school districts receiving eRate discounts to block access to inappropriate materials on the internet, many school officials are searching for cost-effective ways to bring their districts into compliance.

They might want to follow the lead of some crafty educators who have turned to their internet service providers (ISPs) for filtering that essentially is paid for with eRate discounts.

According to the rules of the eRate, “Filtering is not eligible for discount, whether as a service or if purchased as software.” However, filtering technology that is bundled into the standard price of eligible equipment or services may be covered.

Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the eRate, said that if a district were considering an ISP that had two different rates, one for filtered internet access and one for unfiltered access, then “obviously we would not pay for the filtered portion. You’d have to net that out.”

But Blackwell acknowledged that if filtering were offered as part of a total package of internet services, and if it came with no incidental cost either to the district or to the SLD, then the eRate conceivably could fund that filtered access.

“In everything, schools have to show that this is the most cost-effective service they could be using,” he said. “But if both options were exactly the same price and one was filtered, then the filtered option certainly would seem preferable.”

A decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding Tennessee’s Year One eRate application confirmed this “unwritten rule.” It also proved that filtered internet access may be eligible for support under the eRate, even if it’s a more expensive option.

Tennessee chose an ISP whose bid to provide internet access to the state’s schools was $23 million higher than a competitor’s but promised a superior level of service, including greater network capacity, security, and download speeds. As part of its “turnkey” approach, the winning bidder offered services such as web site caching and filtering that were bundled into its standard cost for service.

The competitor petitioned the SLD to reject Tennessee’s eRate application, but a decision by the FCC upheld the state’s request on appeal. (See “Appeals decision broadens program rules,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=642.)

Another example is Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough School District. For the past three years, the district has received filtered internet access–and a number of other services–through Alaska-based telecommunications provider General Communication Inc. (GCI).

GCI’s SchoolAccess service is a premium internet service that uses the eRate to help rural schools afford broadband access and high-quality services, such as filtering, eMail, web hosting, and network administration. All services are offered as part of the total SchoolAccess package at no extra charge.

That’s good news for Northwest Arctic Borough schools, which use the eRate to subsidize 82 percent of the service’s cost.

Without the eRate, the rural district could not afford internet service to its schools, said technology coordinator Karl Kowalski. “Satellite communications are just too costly–it would cost us $12,000 per month. And even if it were 90-percent subsidized, I still can’t afford $1,200 per month.”

Martin Cary is GCI’s vice president of broadband services. “The eRate talks about ‘bundled’ access,” he said. “Bundled service is eligible when it is the most cost-effective means of getting internet access. The additional cost we incur to offer this [service] is the cost it takes to compete in this particular segment.”

CGI is beginning to see more interest in its filtered ISP model, Cary said, and he believes part of the interest may come from educators concerned about the new filtering mandate.

“We have a lot of customers–about half, actually–that choose not to use the filtering portion, but they may end up having to use the feature now,” he said. “We’ve always felt filtering is an important benefit to schools. Now that it’s a requirement, it’s going to become even more important.”

The FCC’s rules for complying with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) state that schools and libraries must certify that they have an internet safety policy and are using filtering technology–or at least are “undertaking action” to choose a filtering solution–to be eligible for Year Four of the eRate, which began July 1. The final date for certifying this compliance is Saturday, Oct. 27.

“Undertaking action” can include holding a school board meeting with CIPA compliance listed as a topic on the agenda, with an eye toward drafting a Request for Proposals for filtered internet service that is eRate-eligible when Year Five rolls around.

Links:

Northwest Arctic Borough School District
http://szkotzebue.kotzebue.nwabsd.schoolzone.net

GCI’s SchoolAccess
http://www.schoolaccess.net

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

CIPA regulations
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Orders/2001/fcc01120.doc