FCC official apologizes for recent problems plaguing E-rate

There is widespread agreement in the education community that the E-rate program provides critical support to schools and libraries and has changed to meet evolving technologies, but recent regulatory and procedural issues as a result of new rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2014 are causing distress among applicants.

“From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry that it’s been this way,” said Nicholas Degani, senior counsel to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, addressing attendees recently at the annual Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition conference in Alexandria, Va. “We’re doing everything we can to try and fix it, and make is so this application process is not a terror for the applicants.”

Based on internal conversations, Degani said Chairman Pai “still thinks the number one problem with E-rate is that it relies far too much on tens or hundreds of pages of forms to try to get applicants to be more cost-efficient, rather than trusting applicants to [find ways to be cost-efficient] and do it in a way that really makes sense.”

That sentiment, however, won’t warrant another overhaul of the E-rate program anytime soon, he said. And he gave no allusions that applicants’ biggest gripe — complications stemming from the online application process using the E-rate Productivity Center — will be solved in the coming months.

“We have limited resources at the agency,” he said. “We have a great team, but we also have a backlog stretching to 1998. And we have applicants who are not able to get through the existing process right now.

“We don’t have those processes fully implemented yet. We need to get our ducks in a row before we even start talking about any policy or legal changes. It’s got to be a system that works.”

“From my perspective, it’s disheartening to see the number of people applying to E-rate, the number of schools and libraries taking advantage of this valuable resource, declining in the past few years,” Degani said. “It’s not because they don’t care about Internet access anymore. And it’s not because they don’t see E-rate as a potentially valuable opportunity to better serve their library patrons, their students and their teachers. It is because they see an E-rate process that has grown increasingly complicated in the past few decades and an IT system that’s repeatedly failed.”

Declining number of participants

Funds for Learning analyzed the latest E-rate funding requests to determine trends in pricing and speeds of broadband connections.

They estimate that about 10,000 more high-speed data lines were included on applications in FY 2017, and they’ve seen a decline in applicants requesting discounts on slower broadband connections, which Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington deemed as “one of the big success stories.”

On the other hand, E-rate applicants have experienced longer delays in receiving their discount commitment letters and have reported a higher dependency on E-rate consultants to complete applications, which points to the current application complexity as a result of new rules, he said.

There’s also been a 16 percent decline in the number of applicants applying to the program since its peak in FY 2014. “Some of that is related to the phase-out of voice support, as well as the complexity of the rules — some fear factor,” Harrington said.

The FCC is slated this year to review the impact of the phase-out of voice and telephone service under services eligible for E-rate discounts.

“I hear from a lot of schools that have [had] to scale back some of their other E-rate eligible work simply because their budget now is straining because of the telephone service they are still required to have,” Harrington said.

Trump’s infrastructure plan

The future of the E-rate program is currently being debated in Washington.

Reg Leichty, founder and partner for Foresight Law + Policy, is hopeful the program will garner more support from the Trump administration, as federal officials commence conversations about national infrastructure.

“As the new administration and Congress begin more in earnest to talk about the nation’s infrastructure, including telecommunications and data infrastructure we need for learning and for the economy, I think E-rate stands out as a powerful broadband story,” he said.

“In this much more complicated political environment that we’re in today, I hope that the E-rate program can be a model not only for the types of governmental investment that can help facilitate the private infrastructure that makes educational technology broadband work well, but really one that both the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, can use to find some common ground as we transition to this bigger infrastructure conversation here in Washington,” Leichty added.

“I hope that it results in a much stronger broadband infrastructure nationally, but also in a more ubiquitous way, especially for low-income families and students,” Leichty said.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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