The 2010 filing window for the federal e-Rate program opened Dec. 3, and interconnected voice over IP (VoIP) and text messaging used for educational purposes are two services now included in the Federal Communications Commission’s revised Eligible Services List (ESL).

Schools and libraries will have until Feb. 11 to apply for their share of $2.25 billion in discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and the internal connections–wiring, routers, switches, and file servers–necessary to deliver internet service to classrooms.

In issuing its revised ESL, the FCC also said it is seeking comments on decisions relating to certain eligible and ineligible services included in the list, as well as some changes to e-Rate procedures.

The FCC determined that interconnected VoIP is eligible as a "supported special service," and the commission notes that VoIP will be classified in both the "Telecommunications" and "Internet Access" categories until commissioners make a final determination on its classification. Non-telecommunications providers can provide VoIP to schools and libraries until the FCC classifies VoIP as a telecommunications service only.

"…The permanent inclusion of interconnected VoIP service increases the options available to schools and libraries to encourage meaningful communications among parents, teachers, and school and library administrators," said the FCC in its order.

e-Rate consulting firm Funds For Learning notes that applicants who receive funding only for interconnected VoIP service are not required to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) unless they also receive funding for other internet access services or internal connections, an observation that the FCC confirms in its list.

"While interconnected VoIP service may traverse the internet, interconnected VoIP service, by definition, is not used to provide an internet access service, internet service, or internal connections," the FCC stated. "Therefore, we find that CIPA compliance is not required for applicants [who] receive funding for interconnected VoIP service. Applicants seeking support for interconnected VoIP service [who] also seek support for internet access, internet service, or internal connections would certify their CIPA compliance separately for the internet access."

The Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which administers the e-Rate, had been waiting to open the filing window for the 2010 program year until the FCC issued its revised ESL.

In its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), the FCC seeks comment on whether to require USAC to submit proposed changes to the ESL by March 30 each year, which would give the agency more time to consider the proposed changes–and presumably would allow for an earlier start date for the filing window. Currently, USAC must submit its proposed changes for FCC consideration by June 30 each year.

A Funds For Learning spokesman said the clarifications contained in the new ESL "will help applicants, service providers, and USAC better understand the technologies and functions [that] are eligible to receive e-Rate discounts." The spokesman said the company was pleased that USAC was able to open the filing window so quickly after receiving authorization to do so from the FCC.

"We also think that the proposed changes to the process for updating the Eligible Services List in future years will improve the e-Rate process by giving stakeholders more time to prepare for any changes in eligibility," he added.

The FCC’s decision to include text messaging in the ESL "makes good sense as it not only is an excellent tool for instructional purposes, but it also is a true telecommunications service," said Jim Hirsch, the associate superintendent for technology and academic services in the Plano Independent School District.

Text messaging, when used appropriately, "is similar to other e-Rate eligible services used by applicants to communicate, such as e-Mail and paging services," according to FCC statements in the order.

However, the FCC cautioned that "text messaging is eligible for e-Rate support when used for educational purposes only."

eMail archiving is classified as ineligible for e-Rate discounts. The FCC holds that eMail archiving is "a form of electronic recordkeeping, often compressing eMail files to make available greater in-box space." And though eMail services that are eligible for e-Rate discounts can include short-term storage components that let users view current eMail messages, long-term storage services are ineligible for e-Rate discounts.

Applicants can continue to receive e-Rate discounts on internal connections for the portion of a video-on-demand server that enables the transport of video to the classroom or parts of a library.

USAC had requested that video-on-demand servers be classified as totally ineligible for e-Rate discounts, but the FCC decided to continue to allow the eligible components of video-on-demand servers to receive e-Rate discounts.

The FCC is seeking comments on tentative conclusions that the following services should be ineligible for e-Rate funding:

• Firewall services that are priced separately from a vendor’s internet access service,
• Anti-virus and anti-spam software,
• Scheduling services,
• Wireless internet access applications, and
• Web hosting services.

Wireless applications such as "services that could be used on school buses to transmit emergency information, track students, and locate buses with GPS technology are ineligible for e-Rate support," said the FCC in a tentative decision, but the agency left room for debate on this issue.

"In their comments," the FCC said in its NPRM, "Sprint Nextel and Verizon noted that the restriction on services that go beyond basic conduit access to the internet is outdated. They note that these applications should be funded if they are used for an ‘educational purpose,’ as defined by the Commission. We seek comment on how or why these applications serve an educational purpose."

The FCC also seeks comments on whether web hosting services should be removed from the ESL in future years, or whether they should be classified as only a Priority 2 service. The FCC’s rationale for this is that "…while many school districts find web hosting to be a useful way to post information for parents and the community, we do not believe it is essential to the educational purposes of schools and libraries."

In its current form, the ESL is divided into five categories–telecommunications service, internet access, internal connections, basic maintenance of internal connections, and miscellaneous.

The 2010 e-Rate funding year begins on July 1, 2010, and ends on June 30, 2011. The filing window will close at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Feb. 11, 2010, leaving a 71-day window for applications.

USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division said e-Rate applicants should note the Jan. 14, 2010, deadline for posting a Form 470 (request for services), in order to comply with the 28-day posting requirement. (Form 470, which specifies the services that applicants are seeking, must be posted to USAC’s web site for 28 days before any contracts are signed, giving service providers a chance to bid on these services.)

Applicants are urged to file early and online, USAC said.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission

USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division

Funds For Learning

Funding Year 2010 Order and Notice of Proposed Rule Making (PDF)

Eligible Services List for Funding Year 2010 (PDF)