A rules change that led an estimated 200 eRate applicants—including the entire state of North Dakota—to submit part of their 2001-2002 applications after the deadline is not reason enough to grant a waiver, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said April 24. The agency’s ruling means these applicants won’t get a penny from the program this year.

“Sixty-three percent of our costs were to be reimbursed through the eRate,” said Curtis Wolfe, chief information officer for the state of North Dakota. “We are going to have to come up with $1.3 million to offset the cost.”

The decision affects hundreds of schools that were denied millions of dollars in eRate funding for the current program year because they failed to submit their signature page before the deadline.

A change in the program’s rules was the reason these forms were late. Starting with the 2001-2002 funding year, applicants who filed their FCC Form 471 electronically also had to mail two documents—an Item 21 Description of Services Form and a Block 6 Certification Form—completed and signed by the deadline, which was Jan. 18, 2001.

In previous years, these documents could be received after the deadline, but in the 2001 program year the rules changed “to protect applicants from excessive mail delays.”

North Dakota officials requested a waiver from the FCC, the government agency that oversees the eRate program. The state argued that the instructions about the changed deadline were unclear.

The FCC disagreed, noting that the Schools and Libraries Divison (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.—the group that administers the eRate—posted the new rules on several areas of its web site, mailed a letter to 61,000 applicants from previous funding years, and issued a press release to more than 100 news rooms.

“It is incumbent upon applicants to anticipate unexpected, yet reasonably foreseeable circumstances,” FCC officials stated in their ruling. They added that North Dakota, considering the size of its application, should have filed early to meet the deadline.

North Dakota had filed a statewide application for 202 of its 500 schools. Some school districts were going to file separately but were told to file with the state, Wolfe said.

North Dakota filed its Form 471 electronically on Jan. 18, 2001, but the other documents were postmarked Feb. 9, 2001.

“Thirty-five thousand or so” applicants sent in their signature pages on time and had no problem with the notification, SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. He estimated that some 200 applicants failed to send in these pages on time.

“I’ve very seldom seen [FCC officials] waive a rule. When they do, it’s usually when we’ve made an error or when there’s a policy problem,” Blackwell said.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps publicly disagreed with his agency’s decision to not grant a waiver.

“I am troubled when so many deserving schools are denied funding, particularly as in this case, when the rules were changed and are being applied for the first time,” Copps said in a statement. “Given these facts, I would have supported granting a one-time waiver to provide funding to these schools and libraries.”

Wolfe said the FCC’s decision has severe consequences for his rural state, where most schools only have dial-up connections to the internet.

“If anyone has a legitimate case for a waiver, it’s us,” he said. “If [we] were a single school district, it would not be that big a deal.”

The state had planned to upgrade all of its high schools to T1 lines, so they could access video and distance education via the internet. Now, they will have to wait until next year.

“We’ve already submitted [an application for the 2002-2003 program year], and we think we are going to be okay for that. We certainly didn’t want to make the same mistake twice,” Wolfe said.

In addition to North Dakota, several school districts in other states and in Puerto Rico also were denied eRate funds for the same reason, Blackwell said.

Related links:
FCC’s Order Addressing North Dakota’s Request for Review
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-02-956A1.pdf

North Dakota Information Technology Department
http://www.state.nd.us

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