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e-Rate wants to be user friendly

When the filing window opens later this fall, applicants will find no major changes to next year’s e-Rate, the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries. What they will find instead is a program that is more dedicated to helping e-Rate newcomers–as many as half of all applicants are in their first year of experience with the program–understand how to apply for their share of funding assistance quickly and efficiently.

Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the agency that administers the e-Rate, said USAC will focus on helping applicants understand the e-Rate process and what is required of them and will spotlight ways in which coordinators can succeed with their e-Rate applications.

"We realized that some people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get through the process," he said. "So many people are new to the process–anywhere from 35 to 50 percent [each year]–and have it as a new assignment."

During last year’s e-Rate training sessions, Blackwell said, USAC asked attendees to rate their familiarity with the e-Rate process, and half of all attendees rated themselves as beginners.

"To veterans like myself and a few others who have been around for a while, it seems like we’re covering some of the same material over and over, but you’ve got to," Blackwell said.

This year’s training sessions offer a new format, with three different tracks for e-Rate coordinators to follow. At a Washington, D.C., training session on Sept. 22, attendees followed their chosen track in the morning, came together for lunch presentations, and split up again in the afternoon for the remaining topics in their tracks, followed by group discussions at the end of the day.

The beginner’s track features an introduction to the program, a review of eligible services, a tour of USAC’s web site, a tutorial on how to calculate discounts, and a discussion of what is needed for program compliance.

Those new to the e-Rate learn the program basics, such as what forms correlate with each part of the program and when those forms are due. The size of e-Rate discounts ranges from 20 percent to 90 percent of eligible costs, and beginners learn about eligible e-Rate services, as well as acronyms and terms.

An intermediate track covers compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), how to make corrections to an application before a funding commitment is issued, how to respond to an audit, invoicing, and program compliance.

During a presentation on audit response, applicants learn how a USAC auditor will work with them to resolve problems, as well as provide training to improve the applicant’s e-Rate knowledge. Applicants are advised to keep all documentation for five years from the last date a service is received, and they also must apply this 5-year rule to any document from a prior year that supports the current funding year.

Common audit findings include CIPA violations, sketchy technology plans, ineligible services, and incorrect discount calculations.

The advanced session covers an advanced Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) review, competitive bidding, advanced eligible services, contracts, calculating discounts, and program compliance.

"We’ve tried to take a look at how we tailor these things to individual applicants’ needs and levels of expertise," Blackwell said. "We think this is going to be a pretty good format to follow."

Training sessions have shrunk from a day and a half or two days to just one day, and Blackwell said USAC has expanded its training sessions to eight cities in an effort to reach more people who, because of tight school budgets, might be able only to drive out and back instead of flying or staying overnight in a hotel.

USAC’s Helping Applicants to Succeed (HATS) program, which offers individual consulting with e-Rate applicants over the phone, through videoconferencing, or in person, has expanded in an effort to reach more e-Rate managers.

"[HATS] gets back to our overall objective of attempting to help applicants; we want good information coming to them, as opposed to having them deal with an appeal or a denial," Blackwell said.

And Blackwell said USAC is seeing the fruits of its efforts to start applicants on the right path with all the right information, because incoming applications have fewer errors.

A recent survey from e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning revealed that the majority of e-Rate managers are happy with the e-Rate program and believe it is doing its job. (See "Audits frustrate e-Rate applicants.")

Nearly 73 percent of those surveyed who expressed an opinion about the e-Rate’s management gave program administrators a favorable review–up from 65 percent last year. Those who strongly agreed that the e-Rate is well managed increased from 14 percent to 20 percent in the same period, while those who strongly disagreed with this statement dropped from 10 percent to 7 percent.

"We’re very happy to see those results. This program got a bad name early on when it first started up, and we had some growing pains, [but] we’ve learned a lot," Blackwell said.

"When people say we’re more friendly to deal with, that’s because we’re doing these kinds of things that have evolved. Some of those things that were ‘last century thinking’ aren’t here anymore, and I think that’s what we’re seeing."

Blackwell said 95 to 96 percent of applicants are filing online, a noted improvement over past years.

And more improvements are coming–he said USAC has some "eye-popping" changes planned over the next few years, but didn’t spell out exactly what those changes will be.

Blackwell said he thinks the entire e-Rate process is improving, noting that, for instance, funding decisions are being issued sooner, with invoices paid in seven days as opposed to the 50-day wait several years ago.

"We do all we can to expedite things, and the whole process has evolved, and I think that’s the reason why you’re seeing the favorable approval ratings," he said.

Online upgrades have streamlined the process as well. USAC just completed an IT upgrade to improve its operating system, which now rests on a new platform for better performance.

Training just wrapped up in Washington, D.C., and will next move to Newark, N.J. Although many training sessions are at full capacity, registration is still open in Orlando, Portland, Ore., and Houston.


2009 e-Rate Trainer Presentations

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