The e-Rate program is complex and continually changing. Most people involved with the e-Rate have many other job responsibilities in addition to managing the process. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recognizes this fact:

"…we note that the primary jobs of most of the people filling out these forms include school administrators, technology coordinators, and teachers, as opposed to positions dedicated to pursuing federal grants, especially in small school districts…" (Bishop Perry Middle School ruling, May 2, 2006)

With competing priorities, it can be difficult for an e-Rate applicant to keep track of the ever-changing rules, guidance, forms, and deadlines that are a part of the program. When seeking assistance with the process, some e-Rate applicants express confusion over when it is appropriate to receive help from a service provider. In this primer, we will outline the major steps of an applicant’s e-Rate process and detail when it is–and is not–appropriate for a service provider to be involved.

Technology planning

For applicants, the e-Rate process begins with technology planning, not procurement. Any request for

e-Rate funding, other than basic telephone service, must be rooted in the applicant’s technology plan. This technology plan must be drafted before any application paperwork is submitted, but it does not need to be approved until services start at the beginning of the e-Rate funding year.

During the technology-planning process, applicants may seek the advice of existing or potential service providers to learn more about how they can use technology to meet their educational objectives. Service providers are welcome to offer their expertise and guidance to give applicants the latest information on services and products they can use in their schools and classrooms. To better understand how to integrate technology into their learning environments, applicants are encouraged to invite technology companies throughout the year to talk with them about these issues and talk about the challenges they face.

Even with this assistance from service providers, applicants remain responsible for developing their own technology plans. Service providers cannot draft or develop a technology plan for an applicant. Many resources are available to schools, districts, and libraries to help them develop technology plans.

e-Rate procurement and contracting

Once the technology plan is drafted, applicants can decide what telecommunications services and products they need to procure to meet the goals and objectives outlined in their plan. The centerpiece of the e-Rate procurement process is the FCC Form 470.

On this Form 470, applicants describe the goods and services they wish to purchase with e-Rate discounts. This form gives the service-provider community valuable information about these services and any RFP or other procurement guidelines that must be followed. When a Form 470 is posted to the Schools and Libraries Division’s web site, a 28-day posting period begins. It is during this time that potential service providers respond to the Form 470 or RFP with bids and proposals. Service providers cannot be involved in any aspect of managing the applicant’s competitive-bidding process and cannot be listed as a "technical contact" on the Form 470.

Once the 28-day posting period ends, applicants can evaluate all of the responses and choose their service providers. Remember that the price of a proposal must be given the highest weight when considering all of the factors that go into the decision-making process. Also, do not give preferential treatment to the vendors that gave you advice or guidance about technology.

An important key to success during the competitive-bidding and service provider selection process is to track all interactions with service providers, keep all bids and proposals you receive, and document how you choose all service providers. All of this information is required for e-Rate compliance, and it also can be used to demonstrate that service providers were not inappropriately involved in this part of the process.

During procurement and contracting, a service provider can help applicants by highlighting important rules–such as waiting until the end of the 28-day posting period to choose a service provider and sign a contract. While the e-Rate is celebrating its 10th anniversary, many applicants’ e-Rate staff may be relatively new to the program, so there always will be opportunities for service providers to share their knowledge about e-Rate rules and regulations.

Form 471 application process

Once the competitive-bidding process is complete, there are many ways that applicants should partner with their service providers to ensure a smooth e-Rate experience. Requests for e-Rate discounts are made by completing and submitting an FCC Form 471. These forms must be filed during the "filing window," which will open on Nov. 7 and close on Feb. 7 for the 2008-09 funding year. If a form is filed outside of this window, it will not be considered for funding.

On the Form 471, applicants should only request discounts for products and services that are eligible for e-Rate support. If they apply for funding toward services that are ineligible, their funding will be reduced or possibly denied. In 2005 and 2006, more than $50 million in requests were denied because the applicant sought discounts for ineligible services or products. Applicants and service providers should work together to identify the eligible portion of a service or product to avoid a delay or denial in funding.

Applicants also can partner with their service providers to create the "Item 21 Description of Service Attachment." This attachment details the services and products for which the applicant is seeking discounts. To give the SLD sufficient information to evaluate their funding request, applicants may need to submit invoices or contracts along with a description of the solution. Even if your service provider doesn’t help you draft this Item 21 attachment, giving your service provider a copy of what you submitted can facilitate the invoicing phase of the e-Rate process.

Once an application is submitted, it is reviewed by the SLD’s Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) staff. PIA staff will ask many questions to ensure that requests apply only to eligible services, at eligible locations, and that applicants followed all e-Rate procurement rules. When applicants start getting questions about the eligibility of a project, they can enlist the help of service providers to make sure they answer these questions fully and accurately. Millions of dollars are denied each year because the schools do not understand how to respond to PIA staff’s eligibility questions.

Post-commitment process

Once e-Rate funding is committed and services or products are delivered, applicants must submit a Form 486 to the SLD. This form notifies the SLD that the project or service has begun. It also signifies to the SLD that the applicant’s technology plan is finalized and that the applicant is following the provisions of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, if applicable.

If this form is not submitted on time, funding may be reduced. The form is due within 120 days of either the issuance of a Funding Commitment Decision Letter or the date on which services begin, whichever comes later. Service providers should be proactive in reminding applicants of this important form’s deadline, as the SLD must process this form before it disburses any funds.

Additionally, the SLD will not reimburse applicants until the service provider files its annual certifications on the FCC Form 473. It is appropriate for applicants to remind their service providers about this form if they see that it has not been completed.

There are also service delivery and installation deadlines, as well as deadlines for the submission of payment paperwork. These deadlines can differ from one funding commitment to the next, based on when the funding commitment was made, when the project begins, and if additional time is requested to complete a project. Applicants and service providers should communicate often about these matters so that all deadlines are met.

As the FCC has acknowledged, staff members involved with the e-Rate process might have many additional job responsibilities and might forget or not understand the process in full. Therefore, it is important for applicant and service providers to work together throughout the e-Rate process to ensure success for everyone involved.

Peter Kaplan is the director of regulatory affairs at Funds For Learning LLC. Scott Weston is the company’s executive director of information services.