Removing uncertainty about what’s allowed and what’s not, eRate applicants now can search for eligible products in a new online database that was created by the agency that operates the $2.25 billion eRate fund. The database is part of a pilot project intended to benefit all eRate stakeholders by making the program simpler and possibly limiting waste, fraud, and abuse in the program.

Specifically, the database is designed to improve on a requirement called “the Item 21 attachment,” which requires applicants to submit a detailed list of products and services they’re applying for.

The problem: “Item 21 [has been] submitted to us in free form,” said Phil Gieseler, technology operations manager at the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which administers the eRate. That means Item 21s can take any form–be it a quote from a service provider, a past telephone bill, or a list of line items.

To accommodate the many different ways lists of products and service have been submitted, USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division’s (SLD) has had to scan the contents of the attachments and store them as image files, which are not directly searchable.

With its database, the Universal Service Administrative Co. has taken the mystery out of what does and does not qualify for eRate funds.

To remedy this, the Federal Communications Commission, in its Second Report and Order released April 30, 2003, directed the SLD to implement a pilot program to test the functionality and feasibility of an electronic database for eligible eRate products.

“If we do this right, in the sense that it’s successful, it will pay off for applicants in the long run, because we will be able to do things much faster,” Gieseler said. It could benefit applicants, service providers, and USAC, he added.

In addition to expediting the overall application process, the database will help curtail the misuse of eRate discounts. “I see the most critical capability of the database is that it can limit waste, fraud, and abuse by providing very clear information to all parties of what is and is not eligible,” Gieseler said.

Suppliers volunteer to participate in the database. Since the process began in July, 25 major vendors have enrolled, Gieseler said.

“It is not all inclusive necessarily. The manufacturer doesn’t have to add all of its eligible products,” Gieseler said. “But if the item is listed, applicants could be ensured that it is in fact an eligible item.”

Before a product makes it into the database, the SLD plans to review it, based on the description provided by the company, and verify its eligibility. If reviewers still have questions about a product, they will contact the company, Gieseler said. If an item is rejected, the SLD will notify the company and give them an opportunity to appeal.

“We do have additional staff on hand for this and a process in place for additional review,” he said. But, the volume and feasibility of maintaining an accurate database could make the project a bust.

“It’s a pilot and one of the things they are trying to work out is what’s the impact on their operations,” said Sara Fitzgerald, of Funds for Learning LLC, an eRate consulting firm. There’s potentially hundreds of companies with thousands of products that could be submitted, and then reviewed, approved, and updated as time goes on. “So far, it’s not as big as [the SLD] feared,” she said.

Despite the potential problems a vast database might create, educators are eager for anything that might streamline the eRate application process.

“I love the concept for standardization, ease of use, and knowing the eligibility of an item. We could have used this a long time ago,” said Gary Rawson, infrastructure planning and eRate coordinator for Mississippi’s Information Technology Services department and chairman of the State eRate Coordinator Alliance, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“When it’s all said and done, it remains to be seen how the list will be used by applicants,” Fitzgerald said. The applicant community has asked to get a copy of the list of products that SLD reviewers use when processing eRate applications, Fitzgerald said. “For whatever reasons, they have not wanted to [release the list.] The database is a little different. It might help, but I’m not sure,” she said.

Applicants can now go online and view approximately 2,000 products listed in the database to help prepare their Item 21s. But, applicants will still have to print and mail their Item 21 attachments with their applications.

The initial interface lets applicants browse and search to find specific product types, such as routers, and to view products from specific manufacturers. Additional functionality is currently under development.

“We anticipate that the pilot can be used to assist in Item 21 preparation. It’s an option, not a requirement,” Gieseler said.

Gieseler said the database would be a complement to, and not a replacement for, the eligible services list.

The database is more specific, because it would list the make and model number for each eligible product, whereas the list is more general. “Each would have [its] place,” Gieseler said.

Links:

Eligible Products Database Product Information
http://www.sl.universalservice.org/vendor/epd_pilot/prod_info.asp

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

The Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov