eSN Special Report: Rating the E-rate

With so much money at stake, and a byzantine application process, the E-rate is the source of nightmares for many participants. Yet, despite the program’s complexity, three out of four applicants say the E-rate is meeting its goal of connecting schools and libraries to the internet, according to a comprehensive new survey–and many applicants say they couldn’t do without it.

Conducted by eSchool News and E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning LLC, the survey polled more than 700 E-rate applicants on a wide range of questions about the program.

View the full Special Report

Key highlights from the national E-rate survey

Excerpts from the E-rate focus group session

Download a PDF of the the full E-rate focus group session

Learn about the typical E-rate manager

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A closer look at the typical E-rate manager

The people who manage the E-rate program for their school, district, library, or consortium don’t fit any single profile. According to our survey, most are administrators (43 percent) or IT coordinators (40 percent), although some are procurement officers (1 percent), accountants (7 percent), or even classroom educators (8 percent). This diversity among E-rate managers has important implications for schools, libraries, and the E-rate program itself.

E-rate managers who identified themselves as IT coordinators reported the most familiarity with various aspects of the program; overall, their self-reported familiarity with the E-rate process rated a 3.7 on a scale of 1 to 5. Educators and procurement officers reported the least familiarity with the E-rate process (rating 2.9 and 2.8, respectively)–most likely because the program’s requirements are furthest removed from their core job responsibilities.

The survey data reveal a key opportunity for federal officials to reach out to superintendents and senior-level staff members at eligible schools and libraries with guidance on how best to approach the E-rate, said John Harrington, CEO of E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning LLC.

"One of the challenges of the E-rate is that it crosses many different aspects of a district," Harrington said. "But USAC doesn’t provide any training to applicants on how to staff it." If the agency offered advice about the kinds of functions or roles that are best suited to managing various aspects of the program, he said, applicants might have an easier time with the E-rate process.

Our survey also revealed a high rate of turnover among E-rate managers at schools and libraries. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they’ve been managing the E-rate process for three years or less–and 19 percent said it was their first year doing this.

"You’ve got a bunch of people for whom this is totally new, and it takes a while for these people to get up to speed," Harrington said. This represents another opportunity for the Universal Service Administrative Co. to provide special training or outreach–in this case, to applicants who are new to the program–to help improve the E-rate, he added.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they are the only person who manages the E-rate process for their school, district, library, or consortium. Thirty-four percent said their organization manages the E-rate process with two to five people, and 2 percent said their organization uses more than five people. Larger organizations and those with more complex applications reported using a greater number of people to manage the E-rate process.

In terms of the tools or resources that applicants use for help, 74 percent said they use a three-ring binder, 60 percent said they use internally developed spreadsheets, 35 percent said they use their state E-rate coordinator, and 18 percent said they use a professional consultant. There was virtually no difference between the percentage of smaller applicants (18 percent) and that of larger applicants (20 percent) who use consultants–or between the percentage of low-discount applicants (16 percent) and that of high-discount applicants (18 percent) who do so.

The average applicant spends 21 hours a month managing the E-rate process, though this varies widely depending on the type of applicant and the kinds of services requested. Here’s a closer look at how much time applicants spend on the process:

Hours Per Month Committed by Organization

Overall Average of Respondents   21 hrs

By Requested Amount
Less than $10,000                                  9 hrs
Between $10,000 and $100,000        12 hrs
Between $100,000 and $500,000      16 hrs
Between $500,000 and $1,000,000   28 hrs
More than $1,000,000                           47 hrs

By Type of Funding Requested
Telecomm/Internet only                        9 hrs
Internal Connections                           21 hrs

By Entity Type
Library                                                    7 hrs
Private School                                       9 hrs
School District                                    17 hrs
Consortium                                         29 hrs

By Size of School or District
Less than 5,000 students                       12 hrs
Between 5,000 and 15,000 students    20 hrs
More than 15,000 students                     36 hrs

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What E-rate applicants struggle with–and what they’d like to see changed

As part of our National E-rate Survey, eSchool News and Funds For Learning conducted a virtual focus group to learn more about the particular strengths and challenges of the E-rate process–and what applicants would change about this process if they could.

The online panel discussion took advantage of EDRoom, a secure, private web space where district administrators, school-level educators, and others in the academic community can engage in deep discussions on any topic.

When EDRoom is used for research or journalistic purposes, it is modeled after a traditional focus group to generate group interaction. As with a traditional focus group, a moderator presented questions for discussion. A key advantage over a traditional focus group, however, is that the online conversation took place over the course of an entire week, and participants had flexibility as to when and where they logged on. Panel members took part in the discussion by reading and typing at a computer–without ever leaving their seats, at times that were convenient to them.

Participants were recruited from among respondents to our national survey, and they were chosen to reflect a wide range of perspectives. Here are the panel members:

• Dennis Bucholtz, IT director of New Hope Academy Charter School of Pennsylvania, with a discount rate of less than 50 percent;
• Jim Copley, an internet specialist with Educational Service Unit No. 13 of Nebraska, a consortium of school districts with a discount rate of between 60 and 70 percent;
• Cheryl Stepp, instructional technology supervisor for Florida’s Osceola County Schools, with a discount rate of between 70 and 80 percent;
• Kathleen Talbot, assistant principal of St. Josaphat School, a private religious school in Chicago with a discount rate of less than 50 percent;
• Bonnie Tollefson, director of Florida’s Levi County Public Library System, with a discount rate of between 80 and 85 percent;
• Laurie Walsh, IT systems specialist for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, with a discount rate of between 50 and 60 percent; and
• Kathryn Wilson, E-rate administrator for the North Carolina Office of IT Services, which applies for E-rate discounts on behalf of the state’s school systems, with a discount rate of between 70 and 80 percent.

What follows is an excerpt from the discussion. To read the entire transcript, go to http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/special-reports.

 
Q: What parts of the E-rate process do you manage exceptionally well? How do you manage these parts of the process, and what information would you share with other E-rate applicants to help them?

Laurie: I manage the Form 471 exceptionally well, because I begin with the previous several years’ applications and project changes from this base. It is very similar to budget preparation. …[We’ve managed] document retention via the introduction of a scanner and database system. I checked with the SLD to make sure that electronic copies of bills and forms would be acceptable in the case of an audit or review and was assured that this was, indeed, the case.

Cheryl: I have been applying for and receiving E-rate funds since the [program’s] inception and am comfortable with filing a Form 470 as needed for a specific purpose. I work closely with the director of information technology [and] monitor our free/reduced lunch carefully, [giving] him a heads-up on any schools that look like they will be 90-percent [discount] schools. Then we determine if their wiring closets need updating. We also carefully track the Two-in-Five Rule. We have been able to keep our closets in decent condition this way.

We download the new Eligible Services List each year, and I keep both an electronic copy and a hard copy on file. We read through the list to determine the changes. We also attend an annual meeting provided by our state E-rate office that makes sure we note changes in eligible services.

Our school district has a very high mobility rate, so I pick one day in October and lock in to that day. I request the food-service report for that day…[and] prepare a spreadsheet. We also open one to four schools per year, and I always need to remember to get entity numbers for them ahead of time. I put in for the new schools at the lowest free/reduced lunch rate so that I won’t have audit problems.

I always get audited, because our free/reduced rates are as volatile as our mobility rate. I have always been able to prove that the rates are as I claim, but [I’ve had] to get the director of food service and sometimes our superintendent involved.

Kathryn: Form 470/procurement process–as long as the procurement folks listen to us and understand that the 28-day posting period cannot be shortened, the procurement process goes fairly smoothly.

Service eligibility–we always try to match the service we are seeking as exactly as possible to the Eligible Services List. This is an area where "thinking outside the box" should never be done; it means you will receive many questions during PIA review [and] could be denied [funding].

Form 471–don’t even attempt to file this until the signed contract is in your hand; be sure all the documents (contracts, lunch numbers, LOAs, etc.) are together in the same file. Before submitting online, we always do a "practice" copy.

Application review–if you can’t give PIA [staff] what they have asked for right away, see how much time they will give you; don’t wait until the day it is due! If you have a consortium, make sure the reviewer knows from the beginning that you might have to obtain information from other folks. Don’t ever blame the reviewer when you get requests for the same information over and over, just fax or eMail it to them (and pretend to smile).

Document retention–save everything and keep it in a file where, heaven forbid, if something happens to you, it can be located by someone else. Print out eMails, keep proof that faxes were received, [and] keep proof that documents were received by the SLD–send [them via] certified mail, [with] return receipt requested.

Appeals–consult an attorney; it is well worth the time and money.

Q: What parts of the E-rate process do you not manage well or need more assistance with? What additional informational resources would you like from the FCC, USAC, or SLD to improve your ability to administer or manage these parts of the E-rate process?

Laurie: I find that the most difficult part of the E-rate is meeting the deadlines and juggling three funding years at a time. I have notes all over my office with deadlines [and] funding year dates–including a translation to calendar year, fiscal year, and E-rate year. Meeting the deadlines is difficult, because I rely on responses from many different people during the preparation of the 471.

I would like the SLD to [request] repetitive requirements during the review [process]–such as signed enrollment and free and reduced lunch documentation–as part of the actual application. If we are always asked for the same documentation, why wait for the review to supply [it]?

Jim: Document retention can be a real problem. Last year, the SLD made available on its web site a "Guide to E-Rate Binder Table of Contents," which lists the documents that applicants might need to keep. It lists 66 documents. …Any help or resources to make documentation retention [easier] would be most appreciated.

Q: What rule changes to the E-rate process would you like to see that would make the program easier for applicants–but would still ensure that the process guards against waste, fraud, and abuse?

Laurie: I would like to see the deadlines for the 471 moved closer to the start of the fiscal year in which the products will be purchased. Our vendors have a difficult time making bids so far in advance, and our larger vendors have problems getting new contracts prepared in time for us. The good news is that we now only have to have one signature by the close date. Our common carrier has all kinds of legislative hoops to jump through before they can counter-sign contracts.

I would like to go back to the original concept of a straight discount for schools. It would eliminate the SLD and all of the rules and all of the paperwork. I met one of the original developers of the program, and it is his greatest regret that this seemingly simple discount program has become such a behemoth of government.

This isn’t exactly a rule change, but I would like to see more technical or school people join the ranks of the reviewers. I seem to spend a lot of time explaining how technology works or what the various components of a phone bill mean…to reviewers who seem to be in place with the sole purpose of getting applicants to concede money.

There are too many forms, too many signatures, and too many rules.

Kathleen: I agree with Laurie about the dates and paperwork. The deadlines really do not coincide with when schools need to negotiate contracts. …The amount of paperwork and the terminology with which the average teacher, technology or otherwise, is unfamiliar, makes the simple job of applying for E-rate funds cost a lot in man-hours. I suspect that if [the program] were better or more easily understood, more schools would apply for more funds. The cumbersomeness of the process must certainly leave some students out, by virtue of the fact that their administration just doesn’t have the time and money to complete the process.

Kathryn: I think the SLD should consider whether a Form 470 is needed for certain services, such as telephone service. The vast majority of applicants do not have a choice as to whom they will buy local telephone service from and, in many places, the choice of long-distance service also is limited.

If applicants are going to use a contract established by another entity (municipal, county, state, or federal), I think the SLD should consider that they don’t have to file a Form 470. I realize that the posting of the Form 470 for purposes of procurement is one of the "must dos" of the E-rate program, but the world of 1996 is not the world of 2008 in terms of multiple telecom service providers.

Cheryl: I am concerned that not all PIA auditors seem to be trained the same. I always have new schools and usually must have a letter from our superintendent verifying that they are schools as identified by blah, blah, blah and so forth. We had one auditor who would not accept that letter as verification; I had to dig through school board minutes and supply minutes that gave the administrators permission to spend money in the school’s name.

Some of these auditors accept straightforward proof, and others just keep digging and digging and digging. When the E-rate is only one of your hats, that takes up too much of your time.

Jim: Many smaller schools apply only for discounts on plain old telephone service (POTS). Without thinking through the implications of the SLD needing to estimate total requests received through the application process, it sure would be nice if smaller applicants could be pre-approved up to some funding amount and just send a copy of their phone bills to the SLD for reimbursement.

Q: Are you satisfied with the types of products and services that are eligible for E-rate? If not, what changes would you make to the types that are eligible?

Laurie: I would like to see [voice over IP] and video conferencing more generally eligible. The difference between a router, a PBX, and a VoIP controller is beyond me.  We are not encouraged to try leading-edge technologies, because they have not made appearances on the Eligible Services List.

Jim: Since content filtering is required in order to be eligible for discounts on internet access services, it would be nice if content filtering services, hardware, or software were eligible. I’d also like to see scheduling services for distance learning or video conferencing applications become E-rate eligible.

 

Q: As you might know, the "Two-in-Five Rule" limits internal connections funding (excluding basic maintenance) for any given entity to two out of any five consecutive years–with the goal of providing discounts to more applicants at lower discount rates. From your experience, do you have any sense whether this rule is meeting its goal? Do you have any alternative recommendations for sharing internal-connections discounts with a greater number of applicants?

Bonnie: My impression is that the Two-in-Five Rule adds just one more layer of confusion and reason for denial.

Kathryn: I think the SLD thought this rule would lead to funding for internal connections reaching "middle class" schools, and this is not happening. … Some folks have talked about doing away with funding for internal connections ("Aren’t all the poor schools already wired?"), but I think [Hurricane] Katrina has shown that disasters may require schools to be built or rebuilt. Perhaps statewide, district-wide, consortium-wide attempts at internal connections should be considered in a different category, with a different level of discount applied.

Jim: It seems like much of the fraud, waste, and abuse of the E-rate program involves equipment purchases. If entities were required to contribute a greater percentage toward equipment purchases, there might be less abuse of internal connections applications.Q: What impact would there be to your district or library system if the E-rate program were to be terminated in 2009? Would the goals of your technology plan be attainable?

Bonnie: Oh my gosh–devastating. We are a small library system that relies on taxes for our county and state funding. We were asked to reduce our county budget by 5 percent, and our state funding was reduced by 20 percent last year. I am anticipating a decrease to both sources again this year. To suddenly need a 10-percent increase [owing] to increased communication costs could mean not keeping the doors open at one of our remote library branches.

Cheryl: Would it hurt? I agree with Bonnie–devastating. …Without E-rate [funding], there would be nothing for technology for our schools.

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Key findings from our National E-rate Survey

Key findings from our National E-rate Survey

• Three out of four applicants say the E-rate is meeting its goal of connecting schools and libraries to the internet–but fewer than half say the program is well managed. Still, despite several complaints about the complexity of the E-rate process, only 24 percent of applicants take issue with USAC in particular.

• Common E-rate complaints include too much paperwork, an inconvenient timeframe for applying, and inconsistent support. Not surprisingly, satisfaction is largely tied to who gets money–and who gets audited.

• The No. 1 change applicants would most like to see is a simplified process for those applying only for discounts on Priority 1 services, or for smaller applicants with fewer needs (similar to how the 1040EZ streamlines the tax-return process for those who qualify).

• All complaints aside, 59 percent of applicants say they have more classrooms connected to the internet, and 65 percent say they have faster internet connections, than they would have if there were no E-rate program. Only 38 percent say they could sustain their current level of connectivity without the E-rate.

• The Bishop Perry Order, which requires USAC to be less rigid and more user-friendly in how it processes applications, is the single best program development in the last several years, according to E-rate applicants. But the Two-in-Five Rule, which aims to allow more applicants to receive discounts for internal connections (Priority 2 services), is not having its intended effect.

• Applicants are least knowledgeable about the rules regarding service substitutions and deadline extensions. Applicants who have received some kind of special intervention (an audit, a HATS visit, and so on) consistently rate themselves more knowledgeable about the program overall.

• There is a direct correlation between the amount of funding requested and how well the applicant understands the E-rate program. There is no such correlation with respect to whether the applicant uses a third-party web site, consultant, or other outside help when applying.

• Most of those who manage the E-rate process are administrators or IT coordinators, though some are educators, bookkeepers, or procurement officers. Educators and procurement officers have the least familiarity with the E-rate process, most likely because it is furthest removed from their core job responsibilities.

• There appears to be a high rate of turnover among E-rate managers at schools and libraries. Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents said they’ve been managing the E-rate process for three years or less–and 19 percent said it was their first year doing this.

• The average applicant spends 21 hours a month managing the E-rate process, though this varies widely depending on the time of year. Applicants requesting discounts only on Priority 1 services spend just nine hours a month managing the E-rate process. In general, the larger the applicant, the more time is invested in the program.

• Only about half of applicants say they use E-rate discounts to pay for other technology products and services; the rest put this money back into their general operating budgets.

• More than 2 in 5 respondents (43 percent) have experienced some type of program audit.

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eSN Special Report: Rating the E-rate

Bonnie Tollefson, director of the Levi County, Fla., Public Library System, knows the trials and tribulations of applying for federal E-rate discounts all too well.

"My predecessor was filing at the deadline, and the system went down," Tollefson said. "When he checked again a week later, the application was in [the system] but not certified." The former Levi County library director tried certifying his application at that time–but because the program’s filing window already had closed, the thousands of dollars in telecommunications discounts he had requested through the program were denied.

Said Tollefson: "He was forced into retirement because of this very expensive error. Is it any wonder I get extremely anxious just talking about the E-rate?"

Tollefson’s anxiety isn’t unique. With so much money at stake, and a byzantine application process, the E-rate is the source of nightmares for many participants. Yet, despite the program’s complexity, three out of four applicants say the E-rate is meeting its goal of connecting schools and libraries to the internet, according to a comprehensive new survey–and many applicants say they couldn’t do without it.

Conducted by eSchool News and E-rate consulting firm Funds For Learning LLC, the survey polled more than 700 E-rate applicants on a wide range of questions about the program.

The survey responses, which come a full decade into the E-rate’s existence, provide the most complete picture yet of who the typical E-rate manager is, how much time applicants invest in the program, their attitudes and opinions about various aspects of the E-rate process, the key challenges that participants face in applying–and their ideas for how to improve the E-rate.

Although 77 percent of respondents said the E-rate is meeting its goal, fewer than half (46 percent) said the program is well managed. Common complaints included too much paperwork, an inconvenient timeframe for applying, and inconsistent support from the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), the agency that administers the E-rate.

"The constantly moving deadlines for paperwork are a problem," wrote one survey respondent. "It would seem these dates are annual and could be set, rather than changing from year to year and even from month to month."

"The types of documentation and wording accepted by the reviewers is not uniform, no matter what the presenters say at the annual E-rate training sessions," wrote another. "Documentation and descriptions that have not been problematic in previous years … may not be accepted by some reviewers in any given year. Frequently, the documentation required isn’t even reasonable. Applicants should not have to dumpster-dive to find packing labels to prove a building is a school."

We asked applicants to rank their level of familiarity with various parts of the E-rate process on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "most familiar." Interestingly, there was little variation among the average responses, which all fell in the range of 3.2 to 3.8–with one glaring exception: The rules governing deadline extensions and service substitutions garnered an average score of 2.6. This suggests that USAC should consider focusing more training and outreach on this aspect of the program.

Not surprisingly, the more time applicants invested in the E-rate and the more years of experience they had, the more familiar they were with the program overall. But applicants who have experienced an audit (4.0), site visit (4.2), or HATS (Helping Applicants To Succeed) instruction (4.3) also considered themselves more familiar with the E-rate than those who’ve experienced none of these interventions (3.2).

"This should encourage USAC to keep doing these activities–especially the HATS visits," said John Harrington, Funds For Learning’s chief executive.

There were few statistically significant differences between how small and large applicants responded to the survey questions. But there were key differences between how low- and high-discount applicants answered.

For instance, while 89 percent of high-discount applicants (those who qualify for discounts of at least 80 percent) said the E-rate is meeting its goal, only 64 percent of low-discount applicants (those who qualify for discounts under 50 percent) said the same thing. And while 54 percent of high-discount applicants said the program is well managed, just 34 percent of low-discount applicants–in other words, those who qualify for less funding–think so.

One area where there was a slight difference in the responses of small and large applicants was whether they use the money saved through the E-rate to buy other technology products or services. Fifty-six percent of large applicants (those serving at least 15,000 students) said yes, compared with 46 percent of small applicants (those serving fewer than 5,000 students). On average, 49 percent of applicants use the money they save through the E-rate to purchase additional technology.

Despite the E-rate’s many challenges, several applicants said the program is improving–and decisions such as the Bishop Perry Order certainly have helped. This FCC directive requires USAC to be less rigid and more user-friendly in how it processes applications, and 72 percent of applicants said it has had a positive affect on the program.

Less certain, however, has been the impact of the Two-in-Five Rule, which USAC created to allow more applicants to receive discounts for internal connections. The rule states that applicants cannot apply for discounts on these Priority 2 services more than twice in any given five-year period. Yet 52 percent of applicants said this new rule has had no effect, or they weren’t sure of its impact. The other half of respondents were about evenly split between those who said it has been a positive development and those who disagreed.

"Statistically speaking, the Two-in-Five Rule hasn’t helped," said Harrington. "What’s more, it adds a whole new layer of complexity, which actually slows down the funding process."

The No. 1 complaint expressed by survey respondents was the amount of paperwork the E-rate requires, which many applicants find overwhelming.

"I can’t afford an assistant administrator, and my biggest worry is how to get someone trained to [manage] the E-rate when I retire," wrote one respondent. "It is one of the most complicated programs I have ever seen, and it keeps changing all the time." Said another: "The learning curve is way too steep. It shouldn’t be; it places the disadvantaged at an even greater disadvantage."

Applicants would like to see the E-rate process simplified for those who are requesting discounts only on Priority 1 services (telecommunications services and internet access) and for smaller schools and libraries.

"We receive only $3,000 per year, and yet we have to jump through all the [same] hoops [as] the bigger schools," one applicant said. "Perhaps [USAC could implement] something like the IRS system, and have a Form 470EZ."

Many applicants also questioned why they must reapply for the same services each year, or supply the same information to reviewers over and over again.

"If nothing really changes from year to year, why can’t we just check a box that says the same as last year for all forms and be done with it?" one respondent asked.

That’s not the only example of redundancy that applicants cited.

"Everyone in the client services bureau needs to be able to access the information that you supply, instead of repeatedly asking for the same information as your application goes through each level of review," another said. "You get asked the same questions during initial review, final review, and even selective review–and you have to supply the same information and paperwork each time. … To me, that is not a good use of my time or the time of the reviewer."

Among the many other suggestions for improvement, one respondent said she thinks USAC’s web site should allow program participants to track the status of their application, and another said the rules about whether products or services are eligible should be relaxed. For example, "restrictions on how internet access is used outside of school inhibits the rollout of one-to-one initiatives," she said.

The challenges of applying for E-rate discounts aside, more than half of survey respondents said they would be unable to sustain their current level of connectivity without the program.

"Our system would not be able to survive were it not for the E-rate," one applicant concluded.

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FCC mulls free high-speed internet plan

Students and educators are among those who stand to benefit greatly from a national high-speed wireless plan now under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Federal regulators are auctioning off another portion of airwaves set aside for government use, and they might require the winner to provide free wireless high-speed internet service across a large swath of the country.

The FCC at its June 12 meeting likely will vote on an order setting terms of the spectrum auction, which could include the free internet service provision. A similar proposal was rejected last year.

"We’re hoping there will be increased interest [in the proposal], and because this will provide wireless broadband services to more Americans, it is certainly something we want to see," said FCC spokesman Rob Kenny.

Kenny said he didn’t know when the auction would be held, and details must still be worked out. However, he said the resulting network must reach 50 percent of the population four years after the winner gets a license and then 95 percent after 10 years, he said.

Under the plan, the winning bidder would provide free high-speed service on a small portion of the spectrum that potentially could be available on millions of Americans’ cell phones and laptops.

Jessica Zufolo, a telecom analyst with Medley Global Advisors, said the plan is "risky."

"While [the public interest component] is hugely laudable and really fulfills a lot of public policy objectives of both Congress and the FCC, from a business standpoint it’s very difficult to justify," she said.

Two years ago, a wireless startup—M2Z Networks Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif.—asked the FCC to let it use those underutilized airwaves so it could offer free nationwide broadband service.

In exchange, M2Z—co-founded by John Muleta, former head of the FCC’s wireless telecommunications bureau—would pay the federal government 5 percent of sales generated from advertising on the resulting network.

The FCC rejected the proposal, because it meant giving the airwaves to the company without it bidding against other carriers for the rights.

Supporters of the plan say it could help widen competition in a market dominated by wireless carriers, such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless.

"If you have a service where you can have competitive access to different handsets, that is going to be very attractive, compared to a wireless industry that makes you have to sign up with AT&T if you want an iPhone," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive of the public interest group Media Access Project.

He acknowledged the technology is still in the laboratory stage and infrastructure costs to deploy a network in urban and very rural areas could be high, but he said it’s worth the risk.

The wireless industry, which opposed M2Z’s proposal, has said imposing conditions on any auctioned spectrum would shrink the pool of bidders.

"We support flexible auction rules that allow any and all entities to bid," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, whose members include AT&T, Sprint Nextel Corp., and Verizon Wireless.

The FCC earlier this year tried to auction off a portion of spectrum in which a winning bidder would have been required to build a nationwide emergency communications network for public safety agencies—but no one stepped forward.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission

M2Z Networks Inc.

Media Access Project

CTIA: The Wireless Association

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NECC 2008 to focus on the digital age

More than 18,000 educators, technology coordinators, policy makers, and administrators are expected to attend this year’s National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), which runs June 29-July 2, 2008, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Presented by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in cooperation with the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), the theme for NECC 2008 is "Convene, Connect, Transform."

"As we build this year’s program we’re exploring fundamental questions about what it means to be a digital citizen in a digital age," said Leslie Conery, ISTE’s deputy CEO and NECC conference chair. "How do we prepare students for living in a global society and increasingly complex world? What new knowledge and skills are needed for productive collaboration in the 21st century? And what types of learning environments foster the development of those skills?"

Conery notes that NECC 2008 will also be a highly interactive conference, with lots of opportunities for attendees to exchange ideas and collaborate with peers from around the globe. Conference offerings include hands-on labs, "bring your own laptop" sessions, model classrooms, and peer-to-peer learning lounges.

Author and journalist James Surowiecki will deliver the opening keynote address. 
Formerly a history professor at Yale, Surowiecki combines rigorous thought with entertaining examples from a wide array of disciplines. He writes a twice monthly column for "The New Yorker" magazine and is the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds." Before joining "The New Yorker," he wrote a financial column for "New York" magazine and was a contributing editor at "Fortune." Surowiecki has also written for a range of other publications, including "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and "The Wall Street Journal."

"We’re very pleased to bring James Surowiecki to NECC audiences this year," said Conery.  "His ideas for managing the ‘wisdom of crowds’ are tremendously relevant to what we do in education–from kids working together in the classroom, to school-wide and district leadership, to very large scale collaborative projects. This keynote should really set the stage for a wonderful conversation."

Hot topics for this year’s conference include Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis and blogs, global storytelling, online professional development, virtual schools, serious games and simulations, funding, and open source.

Noteworthy sessions cover topics such as augmented reality, quick computer activities for kids, open education and culture, next-generation assessments, 21st-century leadership, and social networking.

Attendees or those interested in attending can visit NECC’s welcome site, register to attend the conference, check out the conference agenda, and explore sessions.

Links:

NECC 2008

San Antonio Tourist Information

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A computer lab that students use, but never see

North Carolina State University might never build another computer lab, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education: Instead, the university has installed racks of equipment in windowless rooms where students and professors never go. The project is called the Virtual Computing Lab, and users enter it remotely, from their own computers in dormitory rooms or libraries. They get all the features they’ve had in the past, including access to expensive software packages, such as 3-D modeling tools and advanced statistical programs, that they need for courses. But now the programs run on powerful computer servers behind the scenes, instead of on desktop PCs. And this lab never closes. Perhaps more important, the virtual lab doesn’t have the limitations of being controlled only by the university’s information-technology department. Unlike in physical labs, professors can install anything they want in the virtual laboratory. Students say they like the convenience, and administrators are happy because the virtual lab is far cheaper to build and maintain than a physical lab…

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Hidden surveillance camera sparks call for hearing

Teachers are furious over the secret taping by the Everett School District last year of a Cascade High School teacher and her classroom, the Daily Herald of Everett, Wash., reports. The Everett Education Association plans to file a claim that the district violated labor practices and employees’ rights when it used a surveillance camera to tape English and journalism teacher Kay Powers. District Superintendent Carol Whitehead revealed last week in a two-page letter to district employees that the district used a video camera to record Powers’ classroom between May 10 and June 11 last year. A district lawyer just last month denied a surveillance camera was used. Whitehead said the recording was done to determine who was entering and leaving the classroom on weekends, adding that it is the 18,500-student district’s "paramount duty to protect students." Powers was placed on leave in June and fired in November for helping students publish an underground newspaper, despite a warning not to do so…

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