Schools can apply for their share of 2003 eRate funds beginning Nov. 4, according to the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the program.

The filing window for the next program year will open at noon on Nov. 4 and remain open 74 days, closing at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Jan. 16. During this period, applicants should turn in their Form 471 and other application materials for the SLD to review.

The eRate provides eligible schools and libraries with discounts—ranging between 20 percent and 90 percent—on telecommunications services and internet connections. The $2.25 billion-per-year program is authorized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Applications received during the filing window are treated equally, as though they arrived on the same day. However, the earlier an application is submitted, the earlier the applicant will receive a funding decision.

SLD President George McDonald urged schools to submit their applications online.

“Applicants can help us speed up the processing of their applications and the delivery of funding commitment decision letters by filing online,” McDonald said. Online applications are available from the SLD’s web site.

Many applicants now are eligible to sign their forms electronically, which means they won’t have to print out, sign, and mail in a certification form. Applicants who file online still will have to mail in their Item 21 attachments for Form 471, which are documents that prove they are receiving the services they requested (such as copies of a school’s telephone bill)—but these items may be received after the filing window closes without affecting the status of the application, SLD said.

The SLD also has revised a number of its forms this year. A new version of Form 471 will be available to applicants before the window opens, the agency said. Revised versions of Forms 486 and 479 are available now.

Garnet E. Person, chief executive officer of the consulting firm eRate Elite Services Inc., said the changes were necessary to make the online and paper forms compatible. “It’s more of an administrative change than a content change,” he said.

The SLD is reminding applicants they must file a Form 470 for all new services—and post this form to the agency’s web site for at least 28 days—before executing any new contracts for contracted services, selecting a service provider for tariffed or month-to-month services, or signing and submitting a Form 471. Form 470 is available now for filing online or by paper.

It remains unclear whether, or how, the rules governing the eRate might change for 2003. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) had initiated a review of the program’s rules last spring, asking members of the public for their opinions on several detailed proposals intended to make the program more efficient. But the agency has yet to release any formal decision on its proposals.

“We had hoped that [the FCC] would have ruled by the time the window opened,” said Mary Kusler, a legislative expert for the American Association of School Administrators.

The FCC was not available for comment before this story’s deadline.

eRate funding for 2002

The SLD also said it would be able to grant in full all approved 2002 funding requests for internal connections for applicants who qualify for 90-percent discounts. These applicants can expect to receive their funding commitment letters after Oct. 8.

Originally, because of the high demand for discounts in 2002, SLD thought there wouldn’t be enough money left over to fund all internal connections requests even at the 90-percent discount level. Internal connections are considered Priority Two services and are funded after all requests for telecommunications services and internet access have been funded, beginning with the 90-percent discount band and proceeding from there until all the money is gone.

The nation’s schools and libraries submitted 36,043 applications requesting a record $5.736 billion in eRate discounts for 2002, more than double the $2.25 billion available.

Person said this announcement probably was made possible because of a poor application approval rate. Usually, 25 percent to 30 percent of eRate funding requests are reduced or denied, he said.

Further information about the status of funding requests for internal connections below the 90-percent discount level will be posted on the SLD’s web site when it becomes available, the agency said. Because of the high demand, however, it’s unlikely that funding for internal connections—the wiring, routers, and switches necessary to bring internet access into classrooms—will extend beyond the 90-percent discount band.

“We wish it could … reach down into the 80s and 70s, but the reality is that the program is just that popular,” Kusler said.

While 87 percent of the nation’s public school classrooms are now connected to the internet, access still lags in poor and high-minority schools, according to a recent report from the National Center of Education Statistics.

“The data show that the eRate is working, but we still have more to do,” Kusler said.

Links:

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

eRate Elite Services Inc.
http://www.erateelite.com

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

“Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2001”
http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2002018