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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Waiving in the New Year

I sure hope the good folks over at the FCC got what they wanted for Christmas, because they certainly gave out plenty of holiday cheer. Taking a quick look at recent appeal decisions, the FCC tally since November 23rd:
Appeals granted: 69
Waivers granted: 205
Denied: 1

It's like the heady days after the Bishop Perry Order, when it seemed like the FCC would waive anything.

Another thing that jumped out at me: many decisions came within 60 days of the date the appeal was filed. The fastest I saw was one appeal in the Academia Bautista decision; the appeal was filed on 11/22/10 and decided on 12/19/10. That is breathtaking speed for the FCC. True, that decision also included appeals that were filed in 2005, but it's the holidays, so let's look on the bright side.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More ubiquitous than I thought

Well the applications for the Education Deployed Ubiquitously 2011 pilot program are in. (You can see them by going to the FCC's ECFS (Electronic Comment Filing System) Search for Filings page, type "10-222" (without quotes) into the "Proceeding Number" box and click the "Search for Comments" button.

As of this morning, there were 88 submissions. Some look like duplicates, but it still looks like over 80. So now I guess the Wireline Competition Bureau gets to spend their holidays reading through grant applications. Since earlier documents indicate they are expecting to award funding to around 10 applicants, they'll be playing Scrooge to around 70 applicants.

I'm actually surprised they got so many applications, since it's only supposed to be schools that are already giving students off-campus wireless access.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

hraunfoss, we hardly knew ye

Warning, severe E-Rate geek alert. Honestly, I don't know who but me would even notice such minutiae, but I like to think that there are people who are as consumed with this stuff as I am.

Over the weekend, I noticed that I could not access any document which was stored on Which is a drag for me, because lots of appeals, orders, etc. were stored on that server. There are probably a couple hundred links on this site to hraunfoss. But I figured someone had kicked a power plug out of the wall on the way to happy hour, and on Monday morning would plug it back in and hope that no one had noticed.

Then I noticed that some of the documents that would have been on hraunfoss were becoming available on under a new URL pattern. Uh oh, hundreds of broken links to repair?

But today I've noticed that hraunfoss is alive again, and that it appears that the FCC has left an autoforward for documents that moved off hraunfoss, so if I use the old URL, I get to the new page. (Want to try it? Type in the URL and look at the URL you end up at.

From a practical standpoint, it would be better for me if hraunfoss went away, since all the applications that normally detect URLs as you type them and turn them into hyperlinks automatically never seemed to understand that "hraunfoss" could be the start of a URL.

But I hope it stays around. For me, hraunfoss always conjured a lovely image of a castle in the Scottish highlands. I liked it much better than it's compatriot, fjallfoss. (Turns out they're both waterfalls in Iceland. Google translator says hraunfoss means "lava waterfall" and fjallfoss means "mountain waterfall," but they also seem to be specific waterfalls in Iceland.)

Now this is the kind of information that should be on E-mpa®'s certification exam for E-Rate consultants.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Start Your Engines!

Well, maybe at least think about kicking the tires. The filing window has been announced: January 11 to March 24.

I'm happy the window is so late.

For those keeping track, here's how the window stacks up against years past, in terms of window length and compliance with the FCC rule requiring 60 days between publication of the Eligible Services List and the opening of the window:

So the window is a typical length. The time between the publication of the ESL and the opening of the window is unusually large, and really, the ESL was announced back in September, so it's almost like the FCC followed their rule this year.

He's no Joe Barton

I'm breathing a little sigh of relief: Joe "Bleed It Dry" Barton lost in his bid to return to chairmanship of the House committee which oversees the E-Rate. Instead, we have Fred Upton, which is a good thing. I think.

First of all, he knows the E-Rate, since he has been chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee.

The ALA once characterized him as "very supportive of the E-rate."

The only action I can find (since his part in the 2005 call for serious reform) is sponsorship of a bill to allow schools to get E-Rate funding for emergency notifications systems. Which makes me fear that he'll join in the mission creep that I'm afraid will be the E-Rate's undoing.

Still, that's just a dark cloud on the horizon. For now, the political sun shines on our little patch of heaven.

Friday, December 03, 2010

New window

Three blog posts in one day! It never rants but it pours.

Once again, the envelopes that USAC uses have changed. Now it's an envelope with one big window instead of 2 smaller windows.

My main complaint is the same complaint I've had since 2006: all the envelopes are white. My secondary complaint, which I also first raised in 2006: BEAR notifications are still on white paper, regardless of the funding year.

Here's the weird thing. For FCDLs, each page of the letter is folded, and the folded pages are stacked. So if you grab the cover sheet and pull, only the cover sheet comes out. For BEAR notifications, the entire stack of pages is folded together, so if you pull the cover sheet out, it brings all the pages with it.

The fold-then-stack method is a pain for us. You have to pull out each page, unfold it, restack the pages, then staple them. The silver lining is that you can pull the cover sheet and toss it,* then look through the window and see enough of the first page to tell what's in there.

I'd like to see the next step in saving paper: put the address info on the first page of the letter and get rid of the cover page. I mean, look at the BEAR notification letter: an entire sheet of paper with only an address on it. Then a sheet of paper that has four lines of useful info, followed by just over a page of boilerplate that I haven't read in year. And then a separate piece of paper 6 lines of useful info. (OK, if an applicant has more than one FRN with the same service provider, there can be several sets of 6 lines each.) So 10 lines of information is spread over 3 pieces of paper. It could all fit on one piece of paper.

*Is tossing that cover sheet a violation of FCC rules? The Fifth Report & Order requires that "Beneficiaries and service providers must retain all official notification letters from USAC...." Does that include the cover page? I sure hope not.

The SPIN cycle

The Sixth Report & Order has finally been published in the Federal Register, which means we now know the date that all the changes will go into effect: January 3rd.

Which means from now until January 3rd, we need to do all the SPIN changes we can. If you were thinking about changing service providers any time before July 1st, do it now to avoid the heinous new SPIN change rules.

Item 21 squeeze play

On the Service Provider conference call this week, I heard that applicants will be required to submit Item 21 Attachments inside the window. Currently, applicants are encouraged to submit Item 21s right away, but you don't actually have to submit them until the application goes into PIA review.

The new rule makes some sense, and it won't be a problem for most applicants, especially since I've got to think that Bishop Perry, patron saint of the procrastinator, will force the USAC to allow Item 21s to come in late, either following a warning letter (like a missing certification) or as part of the RAL process.

It is going to be more problematic for us consultants, who have a lot of Item 21s to do. But I'm not a big believer in shaping rules for the convenience of consultants, so I'll just deal with it.

What bugged me on the call was a small technical matter that isn't changing: you can't begin to create an online Item 21 Attachment until the 471 has been submitted. In my presentations on how to file for the E-Rate, I used to recommend that applicants complete the 471, then do the Item 21s before submitting the 471, because sometimes you catch an error in your 471 while you're doing the Item 21s. I no longer recommend that, since you can't do it if you use the online Item 21s, which I encourage applicants to do.

The inability to work on Item 21s until the 471 is filed provides an incentive to do the Item 21s on paper. And no one wants that.

Taking a systems-design look at it, the inability to file the Item 21s before filing the 471 makes no sense. The Item 21 Attachment is a description of the service received. In theory, that should be known at the time the 470 is filed. OK, the Item 21s also have pricing info, which isn't known until the a service provider is selected. But still, service provider selection takes place before contract completion, so the Item 21 Attachment information is known before some of the other information in Block 5.

If USAC's tools didn't limit us, here is the process I would recommend to people who are filing:
  1. When you file your Form 470, go ahead and fill out everything on the Form 471 except Block 5. (Of course, you can't do this unless you file your 470 after the window opens.)
  2. Start working on the Item 21s. You'll have to revise some service descriptions after bids come in, and you can't do pricing yet, but get the basics in there.
  3. After vendor selection is done, complete Block 5 (except for Contract Award Date).
  4. Complete the Item 21 Attachments.
  5. After contracts are signed, complete Block 5.
  6. Review and submit the Item 21 Attachments.
  7. Review and submit the Form 471.
While I'm on the subject, here are some previous rants about the Item 21s:
  1. Fix the stupid thing where you have to select the type of service before you can import dollars from the 471, which erases the type of service so you have to select it again.
  2. Last year, Mel predicted that Item 21s would be publicly visible. What happened to that?
  3. Make the online Item 21 collect all the info that PIA needs.
  4. Why do I have to file a new Item 21 if nothing has changed from last year?
  5. At least give me an "import last year's Item 21" button.
  6. Harmonize the Item 21, which only allows one-time charges for BMIC, with the 471, which only allows recurring charges.
And that's all I have to say about that.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

FCC smackdown

I just read the Argos Public Library decision, and two things jumped out at me:
  1. It's short. Brusque, even. Usually, these orders start with a one-paragraph summary, then a couple of paragraphs of background (including applicable rules), then a few paragraphs of discussion (which describes the decision and how the rules apply to the cases). Then a paragraph that starts with "ACCORDINGLY, IT IS ORDERED" containing the legal mumbo-jumbo (maybe followed by one or more "IT IS FURTHER ORDERED" paragraphs). This order has only one paragraph of discussion, which is really the meat of any order. Even the footnotes, often the source of interesting peeks into FCC thinking, are meaningless.
  2. It's not applicant-friendly. It only granted 20 appeals, and denied 32. I noted that the days of the FCC waiving everything in sight ended early in 2009. But this order makes it clear that the party is definitely over. Once upon a time, you could file a Form 471 four months late without any good reason, and get a waiver. For this order, the rule of thumb seems to be: we'll forgive a 471 filed within 14 days of the window, or 30 days if some emergency occurred.
Unlike the warm waives of the old Bishop Perry days, this order is like a splash of cold water.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

He's baaaaaack!

What's the number one threat to the E-Rate? Well, it has been mission creep, but after this month's election, E-Rate Enemy #1 is looming.

Rep. Joe "Bleed It Dry" Barton has made no bones about wanting to kill the E-Rate. When the Republicans were voted out of the majority in Congress, his efforts were thwarted. Now the Republicans are back in. Party rules about term limits would normally keep him out of the chairmanship, and the scuttlebutt was that he wouldn't get a waiver of those rules. But he's said all along that he will get the chairmanship, and now he's apparently dishing the dirt on his chief rival for the chairmanship.

This could get ugly.

Diana Ross and the E-Rate

Who knew the E-Rate was heading for the Supreme Court? It's the FCC v. AT&T, coming to the Supremes in January, and really, it has almost nothing to do with the E-Rate. But I think the last time the E-Rate made it to the Supreme Court, they handed down the kludgy CIPA rules for libraries, so I am disquieted.

In a nutshell, the FCC investigated SBC Communications (now part of AT&T) because of some fraud (I'm pretty sure it's this case), and then a competitor filed a FOIA request to get the records of the investigation. The FCC released some of the records, and AT&T said they shouldn't have, because of the FOIA exemption for "personal privacy." The issue before the Supreme Court is whether corporations get "personal privacy."

I'm surprised that the FCC released any info. As I've mentioned before, the FCC won't even release the material collected in a PIA investigation to the applicant that was investigated. So a competitor can get the results of a fraud investigation, but an applicant can't get the results of routine application processing?

Meanwhile, I doubt the competitor who originally requested the records will have any use for them if they're ever released, since they're now six years old.

Anyway, back to the case at hand. I don't think the case will have much effect on applicants, but I'm a little afraid that the Supreme Court will grant personal privacy to corporations, and the FCC will use that decision to reinforce the shroud over the PIA process.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Ubiquitous disappointment

The FCC has released details on the Education Deployed Ubiquitously 2011 (EDU2011) grant program. My biggest complaint: the word "ubiquitously" should have been used more, well, ubiquitously. I mean "Education Deployed Ubiquitously" may be the all-time best name for a federal program (or sub-program or whatever you want to call this), and they have acronymed it away. At least EDU2011 isn't a terrible acronym, although for those of us who can remember when there were only 6 top-level domains, edu means higher ed, not K-12.

What, you thought I was going to say something about the actual program? OK, here are the bullet points:
  • Application deadline: 12/17/10
  • Open only to applicants who had implemented (or had complete plans to implement) before 9/23/10
  • Applications must be 20 pages or less
  • There is no application form
  • File a 471 for the project, with "EDU2011" as the Applicant's Form Identifier

This seems like a lot of extra work for the Wireline Competition Bureau, and if the program is successful, it will mean more demand for Priority One funding. What really worries me is that if off-campus wireless Internet access for kids becomes eligible, we'll see a cottage industry created to meet that niche, and the 90% discount will be too close to free, and we'll have schools paying for a lot of underutilized Internet access.

Or maybe I'm just getting curmudgeonly in my old age.

Friday, November 05, 2010

I say "entity," you say "entity," oh let's call the whole thing off

This week's News Brief brings up one of my pet peeves: the word "entity." I've said before, the program needs to find new terminology. The problem is that "entity number" and "billed entity number" are very different things. The News Brief tries to draw a distinction: an "entity number" is attached to a location, while a "billed entity number" is attached to an organization. But even in the News Brief, it gets muddled. The brief says, "The city or town enters its entity number in Block 1 of all appropriate program forms." Shouldn't that be "billed entity number"? And what do you do if you want to find an entity number? Use the "Billed Entity Number Search tool." What if you're looking for an entity number for a non-billed enity?

We need to strike the word "entity" from the E-Rate lexicon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Prime ministerial

So it's the day after the final BEAR push, leaving me time to ponder questions such as, "What exactly is a 'ministerial error,' anyway?" So I looked it up and found this definition in the Code of Federal Regulations, C.F.R. 19 §351.224(f) :
Definition of “ministerial error.” Under this section,
ministerial error means an error in addition, subtraction,
or other arithmetic function, clerical error resulting from
inaccurate copying, duplication, or the like, and any other
similar type of unintentional error which the Secretary
considers ministerial.

(It's from Customs regulations, but that's close enough for government work.)

By the way, I checked, and Bishop Perry (the patron saint of "ministerial and clerical") does not define "ministerial." The FCC actually asked for a definition of "ministerial" in the 2005 NPRM, but they don't seem to have adopted one. I don't remember seeing a definition in any of the responses to that NPRM, but I definitely could have missed that.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Smarter than the average BEAR

So here's a positive data point from this year's BEAR season: we only had to do three BEARs on paper. More and more service providers are getting the hang of the online certification over the past couple of years, but last year we still had to do a fair number on paper.

One nagging problem with online certification: I haven't seen the service provider interface for BEAR approval, but apparently the button they press says "Certify." So newbies take a look at the form and click on "Certify." But if they don't check a little box next to one of the FRNs, that FRN is cancelled. Most BEARs are only one FRN, so it's easy to miss that check box. So every year we get a handful of canceled BEARs, which we then have to redo. Even experienced certifiers forget to check the box sometimes.

There should be a warning when a service provider clicks the "Certify" button that says, "You didn't check the little box next to the following FRNs. Click 'Accept' to cancel those FRNs, or click 'Edit' to check the box before certifying."

And while I'm giving out BEAR beefs, why can't I modify a BEAR after submittal? It happens every year, more often than I'd like, that a service provider says, "It looks like you included this ineligible charge in your amount, fix it." Unfortunately, I can't fix it, so the SP has to cancel the BEAR and I have to post a new one.

Before a BEAR is certified by the SP, I should be able to make changes to it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ho Ho Ho

Mel Blackwell does not have a Saint Nick physique, but he certainly brightened my holidays.

USAC released a News Brief today (if I ran USAC, any News Brief that came out on Monday would start with "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!") which said:

  • We expect the FY2011 filing window to open in early January 2011.
  • The window will remain open for about the same number of days as in the past, which means that we expect the window to close in mid-March 2011.

I have been saying for years that the window should be later, and I finally get my wish. I'm sure it's only because USAC is scrambling to get the online 470 and 471 updated to meet new FCC requirements, but my hope is that after they try it for one year, it will become the norm.

Monday, October 04, 2010

E-Rate, not E-rate

OK, one final rant from the Sixth Report & Order.

Faithful readers will know that I have my knickers in a twist about the spelling and capitalization of "E-Rate." After belittling others for spelling it "eRate," someone pointed out to me that the FCC spells it "E-rate." I tried to discern Congressional intent, but as one might expect, that just muddied things further.

While reading the 6R&O (it's high time we had an acronym with an ampersand, don't you think?), I was captivated by the title "E-Rate Deployed Ubiquitously." "Deploy" and "ubiquitously" are just splendid words. As I savored the name, I realized that it proved that my capitalization was right all along.

See, the FCC capitalized the "R." Of course, they always capitalize the "R" in headings. Wait a minute. Why would it be capitalized in headings? Only the first letter in a word is capitalized in a heading. But the first letter of a word is also capitalized in a proper noun like "E-Rate." So the only logically consistent position is that the "R" is always capitalized. (Well, I suppose you could make the case that it's not a proper noun, but then in the middle of a sentence you'd get "e-rate" and that's just immoral, so let's not go there.)

Time to launch a campaign for an NPRM about the spelling of "E-Rate."

Sixth Report & Disorder

I am in full gripe mode this morning, so I thought I'd throw all my minor gripe about the Sixth Report & Order into one post. I've already posted my major gripes.

Again, I just want to make clear that as a whole, the 6th R&O improves the program. But the positive changes were all touted in the FCC press release, so I'll stick to the dark side.

  1. “As long as schools are in compliance with CIPA requirements, we leave specific policymaking decisions up to individual schools to address.” (footnote 76)
    So now that schools are offering Internet access to adult community members, do they now have to comply with the heinous CIPA rules that the Supreme Court came up with for libraries? That would mean turning off filtering for individuals who request unfiltered access….
  2. “we plan to include a box on the FCC Form 471 when we next revise this form for applicants to check if they are taking advantage of this rule change.” (paragraph 25)
    You know, I was just thinking that there aren’t enough checkboxes on the Form 471.
  3. “an eligible school or library may assess computer fees to help defray the cost of computers" (paragraph 26)
    Does a converse to the Free Services Advisory apply? Can my school charge $5/hour for computer use, and throw in Internet access for free, or will I have to do some cost allocation? Look for the blossoming of PTO-sponsored cybercafé fundraisers.
  4. “the cap for funding year 2010 will be increased to $2,270,250,000.” (paragraph 36)
    Well, at least it's in the right direction. At this rate, 40% schools will get some P2 funding around, say, Stardate 2542.7.
  5. “E-Rate Deployed Ubiquitously” (paragraphs 44-50)
    First off, kudos for using the word "ubiquitously." You just don't see that word often enough. But $10 million dollars to a “handful” of applicants who have already deployed off-campus wireless Internet access? Is there really a pool of schools and libraries that are spending $1 million/year or so on off-campus access? And who gets stuck evaluating the proposals?
  6. “we direct USAC to make available on its website and update on an ongoing basis a list of donation and recycling locations for communications equipment.” (paragraph 75)
    This is not how USAC should be spending USF funds. Remember the Eligible Services Database? I foresee cobwebs on this database.

Maintain this

What's the worst news from the Sixth Report and Order?

“We find that an unbundled warranty is an ineligible BMIC service because it is purchased as a type of retainer and not as an actual maintenance service.” (paragraph 106)

OK, first off, the reasoning is faulty. If an applicant pays every month for a phone line to connect an alarm system to the security company, that line is eligible, even if the alarm is never tripped. Inside wiring maintenance costs are eligible, even though wires don't wear out. To say that a warranty is not an actual service just because you don't use it every year doesn't hold water for me.

I understand where this is coming from. I, too, am appalled at the cost of manufacturers' warranties on phone systems and data network equipment. It definitely feels like they have us over a barrel. But it doesn't rise to the level of abuse of the program. The exorbitant amount that PBX manufacturers charge to schools and libraries is the same amount they charge everyone else. No one is gouging the E-rate.

What effect is this going to have? On the phone side, the answer is Centrex.

I have a meeting this week with a client that is about to sign a new 5-year contract on their phone system, at about a half million per year. Take a look at their options. It would be foolhardy to use a phone system without a service contract, so unless they can come up with a half a million a year out of their own pockets, they'll have to turn off their phone system (and since it was purchased 2 years ago with E-rate funds, let it sit in the corner for 3 more years until they can sell it for scrap). Now normally, they could get a nice deal on some hosted VoIP, and they might be able to cover the district for maybe $1 million per year, doubling their demand for funding. But now their data network won't have a warranty, either, so they can't jeopardize student safety by running their voice over that network. So they'll have to see if they can find a phone company that will give them Centrex service. With Centrex, the wiring will all be installed and maintained by the phone company, and the equipment will be back in the CO, maintained by the phone company. What will that cost? I'm estimating $3.5 million/year.

So the E-rate will pay an extra $3 million per year to move this district backwards to a technology that was cutting-edge in the '60s.

On the data side, applicants will probably just pay out of their own pockets for a spare edge switch, and swap it out when a switch malfunctions. Of course, the district will have to hold on to the malfunctioning switch for 5 years, because they really won't be able to replace malfunctioning hardware, but the switch probably still has some value, so they can't just throw it out, and E-rate rules won't let them sell it to someone who might fix it.

Core switches are more problematic. Applicants will be forced to design networks which can still function in the absence of any single core switch. Those networks will be more expensive, and will likely be limping along if a core switch does fail. More bad engineering made cost-effective by unfortunate E-rate rules.

There is another possible workaround, depending on how this rule is interpreted. It is clear the FCC wants applicants to set up maintenance contracts which set up a pool of hours, where the service provider is paid for hours actually used. If such a contract could also include a pool of money for purchasing replacements for failed components, then maybe we wouldn't see a resurgence of Centrex.

Whether the FCC allows applicants to throw replacement parts into the pool, setting up these pools means:
  1. Applicants will try to set up a pool big enough to cover the worst-case scenario, meaning lots of approved funding will go unused every year (which I don't see as a problem, but which has been called out by the GAO and Commissioner McDowell). And the maintenance cost-effectiveness tug-of-war, which already eats up too much PIA time, will require a whole separate division of Solix to manage.
  2. No matter how big the pool is allowed to get, the applicant runs the risk that there will not be enough funding to replace equipment wiped out by a major catastrophe. Just when the applicant needs help the most, it won't be there.
The pools will increase demand for funding, squeezing the fund in the short term. After a couple of years, the big pile of unused funds from the pools will start flowing back into the fund, and in the end I'd guess that disbursements will actually be lower than with warranties, except in years with large natural disasters.
While I agree that manufacturer warranties seem exorbitant, there is a reason that such warranties are "ordinarily provided in the marketplace to entities receiving such services without e-rate discounts."*
* Third Report & Order, paragraph 23, where the FCC defined Basic Maintenance.

My head is SPINning

Tucked away in the Sixth Report & Order is an offshore earthquake which will provoke a tsunami of lost funding and appeals to the FCC:

“[T]o alleviate uncertainty regarding the types of SPIN changes that are permissible following a competitive bidding process, we clarify that once a contract for products or services is signed by the applicant and service provider, the applicant may not change to a different service provider unless (1) there is a legitimate reason to change providers (e.g., breach of contract or the service provider is unable to perform); and (2) the newly selected service provider received the next highest point value in the original bid evaluation, assuming there was more than one bidder.” (paragraph 92)

That looks reasonable. And it addresses an area of actual abuse: service providers eschewing the competitive bidding process, then swooping in after funding approval and taking the business.

But most SPIN changes are not abuse. They are applicants who got a better deal on, say, long distance and want to switch providers. So now if a school district finds an opportunity to save money on their month-to-month phone service, they have to wait until they can file a Form 470, wait 28 days for no bids to arrive, then make the switch. For a lot of applicants, it won't be worth the hassle, so they'll forego the savings opportunity.

But that's not what worries me. I used to be a federal procurement officer, so I'm used to regulations that tie the hands of ethical employees and raise costs in order to make abuse more difficult for the unethical. The problem I have is when this rule hits the real world.

Because in the real world, the person who decides to switch phone carriers is often not the person who files for the E-rate. When I go to a client at the end of the funding year to collect bills to file a BEAR, I often hear, “Oh, we forgot to tell you: six months ago we found a cheaper phone company and switched service.” In that case, they will simply lose six months of funding. USAC won't be able to help them, so they will file a Request for Waiver with the FCC. It's going to happen a lot.

The only hope is that getting a lower price will be considered a "legitimate reason to change providers." Then it will just be a matter of hoping you only got one bid in response to your 470. However, if you got 2 or more bids, you are now locked in, no matter what kind of savings comes along.

SPIN changes were one tool to help applicants work within the broken E-rate procurement process to get the best deal. Now that tool has been ruined. Opportunities for cost savings will be lost, and innovation will be stifled.

Sorry, but I think the solution is worse than the problem.

Some shadows on dark fiber

I'm thinking I'll do a few posts about the Sixth Report & Order, because, well, it is HUGE.

I'll start with dark fiber. In general, it's great that dark fiber is eligible. And great that lit fiber can now be purchased from non-telecom providers. But of course, I'm going to gripe about some details. (Sometimes I think I should call myself the Angry E-Rate Nerd, but the Angry Video Game Nerd would probably sue me. Plus I can't seem to produce the requisite vulgarity.)
My gripes:
  1. “Although lit fiber is already eligible for funding as either a telecommunications service or an Internet access service … an applicant cannot lease the lit fiber for voice telecommunications from a non-telecommunications carrier.” (paragraph 11) I'm sure this isn't supposed to mean what it actually says. It seems to say that fiber leased from a non-ETP cannot be used to transport the district’s internal VoIP between locations. And that if a district has one of the new concurrent-call hosted VoIP services, where the telecom service is riding over the district’s WAN, the WAN must be leased from an ETP. I hope what is meant is that voice service has to be purchased from an ETP, regardless of what transport it rides over. I just wish that's what the order actually said.
  2. “Providing services using dark fiber may involve a number of additional costs beyond lease payments for fiber connectivity, and those costs should be factored in to a total-cost comparison across bids.” (paragraph 19) Oh, the pain. So let's say a typical client seeks a WAN, and they're trying to decide between a typical telco WAN offering, which would give them a live Ethernet port, or dark fiber, which would give them an unlit fiber pair. To use the dark fiber pair, they’ll need to put a fiber GBIC in their switch. The fiber GBIC is not eligible in a Priority 1 FRN, so it can't be included in the "primary factor" cost calculation. So now is the district required to create a separate criterion for total cost? Or one for ineligible costs? Either way, a disgruntled telco bidder can say it's not an "apples-to-apples" comparision, since the cost of the GBIC will be weighted less heavily. What about the cost of the GBIC slot in the switch? And what about the cost of the Ethernet port on the switch that the lit WAN would use? Do we include that cost? How do we calculate the cost of a single Ethernet port on a switch which has 24 copper ports, a fiber port, and a couple of GBIC slots? Now imagine the headache of calculating the cost of a GBIC+slot and Ethernet port on a chassis switch with a half-dozen blades in it. There is not enough caffeine in the world.
  3. “We include as eligible maintenance costs and installation charges.” (paragraph 19) “This includes charges for installation within the property line.” (footnote 52) “For purposes of the E-rate program, we will consider Indefeasible Rights of Use (IRU) purchase arrangements as a lease of dark fiber. To the extent an IRU contract contains significant upfront charges, and consistent with our existing requirements regarding upfront costs associated with the purchase of telecommunications services, applicants must amortize upfront, non-recurring charges where the upfront charges 'vastly exceed' the monthly recurring charges.” (footnote 51) Finally, some good news. It seems the “unused capacity” statements in the press release were more vision than rule. Go ahead and build a new dark fiber network, as long as the construction costs are amortized the way we currently do with lit fiber networks.
  4. “[W]e decline to extend support to cover special construction charges that may be incurred to build out connections from applicants’ facilities to an off-premises fiber network” (paragraph 19) “Special construction charges include costs for design and engineering, project management, digging trenches, and laying fiber.” (footnote 54) Wait.... What?! Did the FCC just say that when leasing fiber (lit or dark), the cost of running the fiber from the pole to the property line can’t be included? Really? Applicants can pay the service provider to run fiber all over town, but not for that one short segment? OK, but what is an applicant supposed to do in the real world? The typical fiber lease is a 40-year IRU, with the buildout cost amortized over the first five years. So the cost to the applicant is, let's say, $2,000 per month for the first 5 years, then $200 per month until the end of the contract. All buildout costs ("special construction" or otherwise) are included in the monthly cost. Is the service provider now required to dig into that cost and separate the cost of connecting the client to a pole from the cost of building out the rest of the WAN? If so, look for lots of contracts where the service provider actually runs their network into the client's building, so there is no special construction required. Another example of bad engineering made cost-effective by convoluted E-rate rules. Let's hope that what this really means is that if your contract has a separate line for special construction, you have to cost-allocate it out of your request.
Maybe I'm reading too much into the sentences I quoted, and my concerns are unwarranted. But I won't be advising any clients to get dark fiber this year. Let some other brave souls be the PIA beta testers on this one. I don't want to sign a 40-year contract based on Version 1.0 of the rules.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Where's that order?

So Thursday was an exciting day, with the big reforms being approved by the Commission. The big question today: where is the order? The other orders approved by the FCC were up on the FCC Web site before the end of the day, but here we sit, 4 days later, and still no order. The News Release gives a list of the big changes, but doesn't give the detail we need.

They can't be tweaking, can they? I mean, didn't the Commission approve exact wording? So we've been waiting for someone to convert the file to a PDF? Send the files to me; I'll do the conversion right away.

One piece of big news, the ESL has been approved. So let's play the window game. The Third Report & Order requires at least 60 days from the release of the ESL to the opening of the window. So if we get the ESL today, the window could open on Nov. 26th. That's the day after Thanksgiving, but not technically a holiday. Then if we got an 80-day window, we're looking at the window closing on February 14th.

However, the 60-day waiting period has been a fiction, and the 80-day window is up to the whim of USAC (per the first Third Report & Order), so I'm putting my money on a February 10th window closing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fax desperados

Looks like Solix has a new fax server, or maybe someone finally figured out how to configure the one they had. I think maybe I'm the only person who sees enough PIA faxes and is obsessive enough to notice, but someone at PIA spent time and effort making this change, and I wanted to give that person a shout out, because the new header is better.

It's an improvement in a few ways:
  1. The first page is no longer dominated by an ad for the fax server manufacturer.
  2. The typeface on the header was too big, and now it's smaller. I think it's actually a little too small now, but it's still an improvement.
  3. The header shows the page number as "Page 001," which is an improvement over the annoying "Page %U-001" that was at the top of every page (and was "Page 1 of %U" before that if I remember correctly). Unfortunately, they didn't move to "Page 1 of 8," which would have been very helpful, but anything's better than that %U. I do wish that it didn't say "Page 001," because to me, it's a hint at the chilling possibility that I might someday get a fax from PIA with more than 99 pages.

I do have one criticism, though, and it's actually a significant one: I think PIA faxes are illegal. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act requires that all faxes identify what telephone number they're coming from. It's in black and white at 47 U.S.C. 227(d)(2): "The Commission shall ... require that any such machine ... clearly marks, in a margin at the top or bottom of each transmitted page or on the first page of each transmission ... the telephone number of the sending machine...."

Messages from PIA generally have the reviewer's fax number on the last page, but we should be seeing Solix's fax number at the top of every page.

By the way, "the Commission" mentioned in the code is the Federal Communications Commission, so maybe someone should get on this.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Better late. Even better never.

The Department of Education filed a comment yesterday on the NPRM for off-campus wireless. Thank God they filed it two and a half months after the comment deadline, only two days before the Commission is set to vote on it, and after Chairman Genachowski has announced what they'll be voting on. Because this way, there is no way that the FCC can consider their heinous suggestion.

Their comment is all about Internet access for mobile devices. No surprise, they come out in favor, and they actually give a couple of good examples to support their position. I'm at peace with off-campus wireless, as long as E-rate's not paying for the devices. What I find heinous is the suggestion that the DoE put forth for keeping the cost of wireless access from overwhelming the fund: set up a pool of money that would be awarded as competitive grants.

First, the separate pool is terrible. Pretty soon every little industry will want a separate pool, and the balkanized fund will be much less efficient and easier for politicians to target.

But the idea that makes my blood run cold is making part of the E-rate a competitive grant. Of course it would mean more districts driven into the arms of an E-rate consultant, which is good for my bottom line, but it would be:
  1. Terrible for districts, who would have to plan wireless initiatives with funding that's completely up in the air. Since the E-rate doesn't make multi-year awards, would they compete every year? What if they lost in year two?
  2. Terrible for PIA, which would have to start reviewing competitive grants. Administrative costs would soar.
  3. Terrible for the program, setting a precedent which could eventually cause the program to buckle in on itself.
  4. Terrible for the FCC and their goal of streamlining the program.
  5. Terrible for NJ, where we're still a little shell-shocked over losing $400 million in a competitive grant because someone included the 2009-2010 budget in the grant proposal instead of the 2008-2009 budget.

Thank God it comes too late for the FCC to even consider it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ex Parte frenzy

With all these ex parte conferences, does anyone at the FCC have time to get any work done? For a while there, we saw a Web hosting flurry, but the blizzard these days is all about dark fiber.

As one might expect, the phone companies are coming down hard against dark fiber. Reading between the lines, it looks to me like the phone companies realize they're fighting a rear guard action, and are looking to limit what kind of dark fiber is allowed. Of course they're still saying, "Dark fiber shouldn't be allowed," but lately the main arguments seems to be, "the FCC should study this matter further." (Any time anyone asks the government for further study, I know they're on the losing side of whatever issue, and are just trying to delay.)

I was curious to see what the Communications Workers of America would say, so I actually read all of that one. They had four points, which I would summarize thus:
  1. Don't allow dark fiber. Managing a broadband network is too complicated for the amateurs in school districts and should be left to CWA professionals.
  2. Be sure that applicants include the extra costs to provide broadband over dark fiber as opposed to a managed service.
  3. Protect workers rights and labor standards.
  4. Ensure adequate funding. Increase the cap.

My reaction:

  1. Whoever wrote this point has not sat in the seat of a school tech director. At best, a broadband connection from a telecom company is transparent. You plug your switch into the provider's Ethernet ports at both ends, and away you go. But in reality, the packets you send into that port are wrapped in an MPLS envelope so that they can be shifted to whatever transport protocol the carrier is using, routed over the carrier network, then reconverted to Ethernet at the other end. There's a lot that can go wrong in the carrier network, though I have to say that other than physical failure (a telephone pole going down or an underground cable meeting a backhoe), carrier networks are pretty bulletproof. But with a dark fiber connection, I'm plugging a dark fiber directly into my switch. No protocol conversion, no routing. The only thing that can go wrong is physical. In addition to being cheaper, dark fiber is easier.
  2. Extra cost? What, the cost difference between a 1000BaseT GBIC and an 1000BaseLX GBIC? There is no extra equipment for dark fiber. For a carrier, there is a *lot* that goes into converting a piece of dark fiber into a broadband network. For a school district, the only difference between dark fiber and a managed service is whether the port is copper or fiber.
  3. Now this is the kind of argument a union should be making. However, the political power of unions really seems to be on the wane, so I don't think we'll see any labor protections in the E-rate program.
  4. Hear, hear.

A tip of the hand

The day after tomorrow is the big day: the FCC will consider a Report and Order making some of the changes that have been in all the NPRMs lately. According to the agenda, "The Commission will consider a Report and Order that improves connectivity for students and library patrons, and accelerates the National Broadband Plan’s goal of affordable access to 1 gigabit per second broadband at community anchor institutions across the country, by upgrading, modernizing, and streamlining the ERate program."

The details of the order aren't out yet, but Chairman Genachowski telegraphed a fair number of the reforms in a speech today at a conference in California. I couldn't stand to listen to the speech and I'm too impatient to wade through the transcript, so I'm relying on a news report based on a briefing paper from the Chairman.

According to the news report, the following changes are coming:

  1. cut red tape
  2. increase broadband options
  3. launch a pilot program for off-campus wireless connectivity for learning devices
  4. allow schools and libraries to tap into unused fiber already in place and state, regional and local nets and bypass "more expensive options"
  5. allow schools to offer that fast broadband service to the community so students can access "affordable" high-speed access at home
  6. open the door to "School Spots," where schools have the option to provide Internet access to the local community after students go home

Here's what I think of those changes:

  1. I'll believe it when I see it.
  2. I can't think of any broadband options that are currently ineligible.
  3. News flash: Last year's Eligible Services List says, "A wireless Internet access service designed for portable electronic devices is eligible to be funded if used for educational purposes." Or is the FCC talking about mobile for pilots? That would be new.
  4. Oh, crap. Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but this makes it sound like the FCC is going to make dark fiber eligible only if it's already in place. How on earth is an applicant going to be sure that no new fiber will be laid? And won't new fiber be needed from the applicant's buildings to the first pole at least? Or is this just a way to allow applicants which currently have lit fiber to switch it to dark fiber?
  5. Double crap. Schools should not be in the ISP business. OK, maybe in rural areas. If the order just says that schools can allow remote users to share their Internet pipe, I'm OK with that, but if it does anything to subsidize those remote connections, it will be a drain on the fund to subsidize home Internet access, which is not what the E-rate was supposed to do. I've already blogged about how mission creep might sink the E-rate.
  6. This is just a continuation of a waiver from last February. And don't tell anyone, but a lot of schools have been doing this all along. Think about how many school districts offer some sort of continuing education classes for adults. What, you think they have a separate Internet connection for those classes? I think this is a great idea; the community gets access, and it doesn't cost the schools anything. And parents who come in to use the Internet connection will have more sympathy when their kids complain about how the crappy filtering software doesn't let you go to any good sites.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hallelujah chorus

Somehow this one seems to have snuck up on everyone. You know all those terrible audits? The ones where CPAs who hadn't known of the existence of the E-rate until a month or two before they arrived at school sites to sit around for a couple of weeks dreaming up ways to look busy? Well, for the most part, they're history.

As Mel Blackwell promised last year, the audits are looking much better this year. In fact, they aren't even calling them audits. IPIA requirements will be met by the Payment Quality Assurance (PQA) Program, and it feels more like a Selective Review than an audit. No on-site visit, fewer ridiculous document requests.

There will still be audits, but not by the hundreds (I hope).

It's time to celebrate!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hate the new PIN

Anyone else notice that the system for assigning PINs has been out of commission for quite a while? Well, it's finally unstuck, which is good news.

The bad news? The new PINs are more secure, which means they're much less catchy. PINs used to be a 6- or 7-letter word, with a special character like & or + at the beginning or end. I already mentioned that some of combinations seemed oddly apt for the particular applicant.

But the new PINs are random combinations of letters, numbers and special characters. Sure, it's more secure, but it looks like someone ate alphabet soup and vomited. Except I don't think alphabet soup includes @ or & (maybe Campbell's makes a cyberalphabet soup these days).

Just another example of simple elegance giving way to paranoid functionality.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

FCC for breakfast

The E-rate is seeping further into my life. I'm making pancakes for the kids this morning, listening to "On the Media" on NPR, which is usually snarky commentary on journalistic ethics or the sorry state of print journalism, and this piece about the FCC's new direction for Internet regulation comes on. Even my Saturday morning is not safe from E-rate (I'm feeling anarthrous today).

And a colleague sent me the agenda for the FCC's next meeting, which is going to be all about whether Internet access is going to become a "telecommunications service" or remain an "information service." The three directions they are considering:
  1. Leave it an information service.
  2. Make it a telecommunications service.
  3. Make it a telecommunications service, but then waive most of the regulations that apply to telecommunications service.

I know which direction I'm betting on. The FCC has not been very consistent on most things, but they are generally consistent on this: if there is a simple solution and a complex one, they'll take the complex one.

As far as I can see, the two big questions for E-rate:

  1. Will the Internet Access category on the Eligible Services List vanish?
  2. Will Internet service providers be forced to pay into the Universal Service Fund?

I'm guessing that IA will vanish. Apparently digital transmission can be offered under IA, and since 2006 so can voice (VoIP), so the distinction is becoming meaningless.

My crystal ball says that all broadband providers will have to start paying into the fund.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


OK, now this appeal gets my goat. Some little library is getting a little funding for their phone line, and USAC drops an audit on their heads, and then COMADs them for not being able to document the number of bids received.

First of all, who says the district has to create documentation of the number of bids? If the FCC wants to have that information, then it should be on the Form 471. I know, it would make the form more complex, but it wouldn't make the application process more complicated. It just makes it obvious how complicated the process is.

Second, the recovery amount is $486. How did an applicant this small get audited in the first place? And how about we have a bid threshold like government purchasing law at every other level of government everywhere? Making a purchase under $1,000? No bid necessary. At least the FCC seems to be moving in that direction with the NPRM. And what is the de minimis level on COMADs? Because I guarantee that this COMAD has already cost more than $500, and now that it's been appealed to the FCC, the cost is going into the thousands.

What a waste of everyone's time.

FCC jetty

Just when it seemed the FCC would waive anything as long as there was no waste, fraud or abuse, they've found a deadline it won't waive without a compelling reason: the deadline for filing an appeal. Yesterday they denied 104 appeals that were filed late.

That seems like a reversal of precedent to me, but I'm too lazy to go back and try to find late appeals that were granted in the past.

On the one side, it seems odd to say that you can file a Form 471 late for no good reason, but you can't file an appeal late.

But I think the FCC may have been forced into this, because the appeals thing was getting out of hand. Some of the appeals that they denied were filed years after the appeals deadline, because applicants saw the about-face that the FCC made with Bishop Perry, and realized that under the new kinder/gentler FCC, they could win an appeal. And I have seen pitches from consulting companies offering to remedy past mistakes by appealing to the FCC well after the fact.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

PIA peeve

OK, I just can't hold this one in any more:

When you do an online Item 21 Attachment, on the Line Item Detail screen, there is a link that brings in the dollar amounts from the 471. That's really handy, but in past years you always had to remember to click that link first, because it erased everything else. This year there is a new "feature": you can't click that link until you've selected the service type from the drop-down. But of course when you click the link, it erases the service type you just had to select, and you have to select it again.

How did they not catch that during testing?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Christmas in May

I just got the new NPRM from the FCC, and have only had a chance to skim a few parts of it so far. My initial reaction: "Holy crap!"

This is real reform.

A few standouts so far:
"We propose to...eliminate E-Rate technology plan requirements for priority one applicants...."

"we propose to eliminate the requirement that applicants for priority one services file an FCC Form 470...."

"One option would be to allocate funding for internal connections based on a per student cap...."

"Eliminate the 2-in-5 rule...the 2-in-5 rule has not served its intended purposes."

I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

There are proposals I'm not so hot on (the suggested wording of the codification of competitive bidding is rather Grinchy), proposals I'll have to think about (making all Basic Maintenance ineligible; Scroogey?), and proposals that are mostly great, but need some tweaking (the equipment disposal rules). But those are like getting socks from Aunt Martha: disappointing, but they don't spoil the holiday.

Time to think about FY2011. Oy.

With the USAC announcement of next fall's training sessions, it's kind of like FY2011 has started. And I'm still doing service substitutions for FY2008, not to mention the last stages of audits from FY2005.

I'm such an E-rate geek that I kind of like the trainings. I don't learn much about the application process, but Mel always has a few good tidbits, I get to see familiar faces, and there's always at least one newbie who gets apoplectic about one of the more heinous rules.

Last year the theme was "Helping You Succeed." Anyone care to suggest a theme for this year's training? Hmmm....

Helping You Medicate
Hoping You Succeed
Success is Overrated, Anyway
Define "Succeed"
I Did Not Succeed With That Woman (That would have been funnier eight years ago. So pretend you're in an audit and try to remember what you were thinking way back then.)

Some sessions I'd like to see:
Cost-Effectiveness Reviews: How much is too much?
The 2-in-5 Rule: Creates so many headaches, Bayer gives us a kickback
The 30% Rule: We don't care if the FCC gutted it, we'll still get you somehow
PIA Review: Like going to a dentist who doesn't believe novacaine is necessary
New Audit Procedures: How to Use a Tanto

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Surf's up!

It's official: the first wave of Funding Commitment Decision Letters will come out May 26th. That's later than in the recent past, but the wave will also be larger.

USAC says 40% of all the applications received will be in the first wave. Pretty impressive. They'll be approving over $400 million, which is a record.

Wait a minute: $400 million is what, maybe 15% of the total funding requested? So Solix is definitely looking at the small applications first.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Weekend off

Two months with nary a blog post, and now two in one day.

USAC has announced that the Apply Online section of the Web site will be down for most of the weekend. [Update: upon closer reading, I've noticed it's only down for 4 hours.] It's nice to get some warning, though would it be too much to ask to get, say, 48 hours' notice?

USAC is billing this as "scheduled maintenance," but I have to wonder if it isn't in response to the failures we've been seeing all over the site: Form 470 searches, online BEAR submissions, data retrieval tool. Let's hope this outage ends all that.

Now it begins

The approvals for 2010-2011 can begin.

The FCC has approved the PIA application review procedures. Now PIA can begin issuing funding commitments; I'm betting on May 25th. And word on the street is that the first wave of commitments will be a tsunami.

I get a chuckle out of the public announcement of this approval, since the FCC considers the actual review procedures to be secret. I guess I'm done ranting about it, though.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

National Broadband Plan putting the squeeze on E-rate

The FCC has released the National Broadband Plan. Being the blowhard that I am, of course I'm going to give my opinion. Being an E-rate geek, most of what interests me is how the plan affects the E-rate. And being lazy, I'm going to base my opinion on the FCC's Executive Summary (if I were a bit more self-aggrandizing, I guess I could say, "And being an executive...").

This blog post will be about changes outside the E-rate program that will affect E-rate. [Stylistic note: I have gone over the the dark side, and am now not capitalizing the "R" in "E-rate" and will be using it anarthrously. Mostly.]

Changes in the neighborhood: Item 3 of how "government can influence the broadband ecosystem" is all about expanding the USF.

The FCC plans to disband the High Cost Program and use it to create a Connect America Fund (CAF) and a Mobility Fund. I'm no expert in the High Cost program, but this just looks like mission creep to me. Since the CAF will cover wireline "broadband and voice" and the Mobility Fund will cover cell phones, it looks to me like they've just added broadband to the High Cost Fund, and I've already stated my concerns that a ballooning High Cost fund is bad for E-rate.

Watch your language: the FCC plans to design the new funds in a "tax-efficient manner." First of all, the USF is technically not a tax. I'm concerned that the FCC is listing toward the old Government Accounting Office report that said the USF should be part of the Treasury, and Congressional Budget Office report that found the USF would be more efficient if it were a tax. The idea of moving E-rate into the Treasury is favored by those who want to kill the E-rate, so I'm opposed.

Biggering and biggering: Still under item 3, the FCC plans to "broaden the USF contribution base." Hmmm.... Interconnected VoIP carriers are already contributing, as are landline and cell phone carriers. Who's next? ISPs? Since they'll be a major recipient of CAF funding, it would seem to make sense.

"Expand the Lifeline and Link-Up programs": So the Low-Income program will grow, too.

A "National Digital Literacy Corps"? No. Just go down to your local library, and you'll see that someone is already offering digital literacy courses. Go to you local Senior Center. Check out your local school district's (or community college's) continuing ed program. The availability of digital literacy training is not an obstacle to adoption.

On to Item 4, where the FCC calls for "expanding reimbursement for e-care." OK, not the Rural Health Care program is going to balloon, too.

Here are two vague but threatening goals under item 4:
"Support...small business' use of broadband..."
"Support deployment of a ... public safety mobile broadband network...." I'm afraid we may see two more programs shoved into the USF.

From Long-Term Goal #4: "anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings." [Interestingly, in the press release, "government buildings" was replaced with "military installations."] Those mostly aren't community anchors. OK, schools do provide broadband access to students and to the community after school. My local hospital provides free wireless Internet access for visitors, but I would hardly call it an Internet anchor. Military installations don't offer community Internet access, nor should they. The only government buildings that offer public access are libraries, which should be mentioned.

All in all, it looks like what I feared is another step closer to reality: the Obama administration may kill E-rate by squeezing it out of funding with all these new programs.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

2-in-5 is 0-6

Another demand estimate, another failure of the 2-in-5 Rule. Total all the Priority One requests and the Priority Two requests from applicants with a 90% discount, and you get $2.85 billion. Even with rollover of unused funds and some denials, we're not going to see funding of Priority Two requests for 80% applicants. Again.

The 2-in-5 Rule must go.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

E-rate getting stronger

I've posted a couple of times lately about my feelings on the spelling of "E-Rate." Well, things seem to be taking another turn that I don't like. I always say "the E-Rate," as in: "The E-Rate is the greatest thing since sliced bread." But I'm seeing the "the" omitted more often.

Today I saw it in an old post by the Education Director of the National Broadband Plan. He said, "Thanks to E-Rate, virtually all our schools and libraries are connected." [Not at all true: the E-Rate has largely bypassed libraries and private schools, but that's another rant.] It also appeared in the FCC's Community Use Order: "In this order, the Commission waives ... rules that currently discourage public use of resources funded by E-rate." (Usually, the FCC uses the term "the E-rate program," which finesses the question of whether "E-rate" is anarthrous.)

The vanishing definite article is common government-speak. For example, Peace Corps employees don't call it "the Peace Corps." They say things like, "I work for Peace Corps," which sounds odd to anyone who doesn't work for Peace Corps. Listen to government employees talk about their agencies and programs, and you'll notice the definite article disappearing often.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls a proper noun which doesn't require an article a "strong proper noun." So at least in one way, E-rate is getting stronger.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tech Plan, Schmech Plan

I've said before that the E-Rate program should not require a tech plan in order to get funding. Inconsistent tech plan rules cause unnecessary denials. The tech plan requirement discourages library and private school participation in the program. For most applicants, the only time they look at the plan is every 3 years, when the rules say they have to refresh the plan.

So why did I spend time even scanning the draft of the National Educational Technology Plan? I guess I always hope that something significant will be in there.

Of course I read it like the dog in the old Far Side comic about what dogs hear when we talk to them. To me, it's just "Blah blah blah E-Rate blah blah blah."

So what jumped out of the blah-blah-blah?

First of all, the USDOE consistently using the spelling "E-Rate." Huzzah! Another one on my side of the great E-Rate/E-rate debate.

On page 54, the USDOE goes off on a little anti-CIPA rant: "this requirement creates barriers learning experiences." The rant is expanded on in the sidebar on page 55. I couldn't agree more, but I'm surprised to hear the USDOE say it.

Otherwise, the E-Rate (with a capital "R") gets a couple of nice mentions (pages 60 and 62), but isn't much discussed.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Give USAC 200 points for the Extension

If you're reading this blog, surely you are enough of an E-Rate junkie to already know that the filing window has been extended until February 19th.

I'm all for that. As I've said before, I think a later window closing is a good thing for the program.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Silver lining a mirage

Those of you have been reading this blog for a while know I hate the 2-in-5 rule. Then, I found a tiny little silver lining. Well, turns out it was just a mirage.

See, there used to be a rule that applicants had to "have reasonable plans to use all of the network drops within two years." But since the 2-in-5 rule basically means you can only get network drops every 3 years, the rule was softened from "two years" to a "few years."

Only now I find out the rule wasn't changed, only obfuscated. The "few years" was just a bit of fog covering the "two years" rule, which is still the law of the land. The Frankenstein-and-NOMAD-get-a-time-machine case that I've been working on for a year and a half is finally getting down to dollars and cents, and when push came to shove, the decree was that all drops had to be used within two years.

So can I count this as one of the many secret rules? It used to be public (and can be found on an old training slide), but now you can only learn about it when you've been stuck by the pointy end of it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

OK, the Form 470 season, I can't wait for improvements to the online form. The page that's getting my goat this year: Block 4, Item 16.

First goatgetter: every time I review the page, I have to recheck the radio button signifying that there are no ineligible entities. Once I select it, shouldn't it stay selected unless I change it?

The other one is that I have to scroll past 50 rows where I can put in area codes and exchanges. Are there any applications that need 50 rows? California only has 37 area codes. I'd guess that only a very small percentage of applicants use more than 3 rows. Can we just have 5 rows and an "add more rows" button?