Applying for E-rate funding is not simple, especially for applicants seeking fiber-based services. Applicants must have an in-depth knowledge of dark vs. lit fiber, self-provisioning, and special construction, and that’s just the beginning. The vast majority of schools and libraries have to hire consultants to guide them through the labyrinth of E-rate rules and procedures. So the last thing we should want is to make the E-rate application even more difficult.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. E-rate fiber applications are being delayed or denied even though they follow the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) policies, past precedent, and the Eligible Services List (ESL). As a membership organization made up of schools, libraries, associations, broadband companies and E-rate consultants, we hear these complaints constantly.
For example, USAC has asked fiber applicants detailed questions about their cost allocation methodologies and the ownership and use of fiber strands. We are not questioning the need to engage in cost allocation – we respect that E-rate funds should not be used to fund ineligible services. But it appears that USAC is denying some applications for fiber-based services based on unwritten changes to cost allocation processes and treatment of fiber strands.
This new line of inquiry comes after applicants have followed all E-rate procurement rules and guidance, completed the already exhaustive Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) Review process, completed their budgeting processes and, in some cases, already signed contracts and begun to deploy their networks. This latest inquiry may even result in attempts—using new guidance previously unknown to applicants—to recoup funds for projects already approved and for projects where the special construction of fiber is already underway.
We have also heard of instances when USAC has given guidance to applicants that differs from its own training guidance documents. How can anyone be expected to make sense of the E-rate program if the policies are changed without advance notice?
The rules and policies adopted in the 2014 E-rate Modernization Orders are intended to help schools and libraries increase their bandwidth and obtain low-cost fiber services, which will be especially helpful in rural markets. We encourage the Commission and USAC to maintainn the 2014 rules and policies and to provide consistent guidance to E-rate applicants.
We appreciate Chairman Pai’s ideas to streamline the E-rate application process. Applying for E-rate funding should be made easier, not harder. The evolution of the E-rate program is in fact a good thing. But with the evolution, we must approach those changes transparently and consistently to ensure all applicants know beforehand what rules and policies will govern E-rate applications. We look forward to working with the FCC and USAC to improve the E-rate application process in the future, especially for schools and libraries seeking to upgrade their bandwidth using fiber-based solutions in rural markets.