e-Rate administrator: New rules should help fund more applicants


 

e-Rate officials say the federal program is updated for the 21st century.
e-Rate officials say the federal program has been updated for the 21st century.

 

The head of the agency that administers the federal e-Rate program had strong words of support for new FCC rules that he said would further streamline the program and should deliver funding to a greater number of applicants.

In an interview with eSchool News, Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), said e-Rate coordinators have a lot to look forward to this year.

A September FCC order will upgrade and modernize the $2.25 billion-a-year program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours. The order also indexes the funding cap to inflation, which will result in more e-Rate dollars for applicants going forward.

“The FCC issued a great order,” Blackwell said. “I think it … sets out a lot of good things for applicants and service providers.”

The FCC also voted to let e-Rate participants use funds to connect to the internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including through existing state, regional, and local networks or by employing unused fiber-optic lines already in place—which should help speed the deployment of broadband access in schools and communities that don’t have it.

Dark fiber “certainly goes along with the [Obama administration’s] broadband access initiative, [and it] allows people to take advantage of more vendors and hopefully get a better price—which will ultimately make the dollars go further in the program,” Blackwell said.

The agency also approved a pilot program that will support off-campus wireless internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. The pilot will explore the benefits that low-cost, accessible mobile devices can bring to students, including helping to close the technology access gap between children from affluent communities and those from economically disadvantaged areas.

Indexing the cap on e-Rate funding to inflation will bring the program up to date in a fiscally responsible manner, Blackwell said. He added that raising the cap for the 2011 funding year should help USAC fund more applicants.

“I think this order is just one of the better ones that have come [along, and it delivers] a lot of good things,” he said.

In terms of the actual application process, schools and libraries will see some changes in the existing e-Rate forms. USAC has tweaked the applications so it can collect more applicant data, but the agency has eliminated questions and information that might be unnecessary.

Blackwell said the shorter applications make things easier, which can help applicants identify mistakes quicker.

“One of the biggest problems in the whole application process is that new people come on so frequently,” Blackwell said. “Anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of applicants could be new e-Rate coordinators.” Simplified forms will help those new applicants as they adjust to different e-Rate rules and deadlines and maintain records, he said.

In its training sessions for applicants, which began last month for the 2011 program year, USAC is emphasizing the importance of saving e-Rate records, Blackwell said, and the agency hopes to update its capabilities in that area soon.

In fact, USAC is working on a mechanism—similar to filing federal tax returns—that will present schools and libraries with their previous year’s e-Rate application and give them an easy way to make any necessary changes before submitting the application for the new filing year, instead of having to start from scratch each year.

“That will simplify a lot of things,” Blackwell said. It also will help new e-Rate coordinators, he added, who might not have access to prior e-Rate applications completed by past coordinators.

“If you come in new, and have no records of what [your school] has applied for in the past, we should be able to provide that for you,” he explained. USAC hopes to make this feature live in a future funding year.

“We also want to go green, and instead of sending out paper, we want to do it electronically, such as funding decisions,” Blackwell said. “When we do go green, communication back and forth will speed up, and people will receive funding decisions quicker,” he predicted.

“All these changes are incremental,” Blackwell said. “But when you add them together, they really make a difference.”

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Laura Ascione
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