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Monday, June 25, 2012

Can Genachowski pull a Lombardi?

So while everyone is focusing on the start of the next funding year, June 30 is important for another reason: it's rollover time.  Thanks to the Third Report and Order, Part 54.507 of 47 U.S.C. now says: "On an annual basis, in the second quarter of each calendar year, all funds that are collected and that are unused from prior years shall be available for use in the next full funding year."

The second quarter ends June 30th.  But don't expect to hear a peep from the FCC.  I've already predicted that the FCC will let unused funds pile up until it can carry over enough funds to cover all the Priority Two requests from 90% applicants for 2012-2013.

At the very least, look for the FCC to run out the clock for the first half, then go into the locker room at half time and try to figure out what to do about this funding shortage.


It is beginning to look like this may be the first year I can remember in which not a single FCDL (Funding Commitment Decision Letter) will be issued before the start of the funding year.  E-Rate Central's News Brief predicts that funding will be approved this week with FCDLs issued next week.  Well, next week is already July.

I expected FCDLs this week, so USAC (and the FCC) could avoid the eggy face of having no approved funding at the start of the year.  

Why the long delay?  PIA was on the ball this year, and there are a lot of applications that completed review months ago.  The FCC approved the secret application review procedures back in April.  Word from USAC in early June was that they were working on systems issues and awaiting FCC approval to run the wave.  

Maybe having systems issues hold up the first wave so long will light a fire under whoever is holding up the overhaul to USAC's creaky codebase.  Mel Blackwell promised the upgrade in the 2009 trainings, but none of the promised improvements have been made yet.

Don't hold your breath, though.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Really?  This is the suggestion you want to move forward with?

Those who have the misfortune to read this blog on a regular basis (well, I guess I can't really call my posts "regular," but you know what I mean) know I've been turned into a SECA fanboy by this filing and this one.  Both of those filings were full of important and timely suggestions.

Instead of considering those changes, the FCC is asking for comments on SETDA's request to make remote VPN access from ineligible locations eligible.

I didn't bother to comment on SETDA's request because it's so insignificant.  First of all, VPNs are on their way out.  Everything is being webified, so the use of VPNs for remote access is going down.  Since VPNs were never all that well used in schools, it doesn't have to go down much to get to zero.  Second, those few schools with remote VPN access would be able to allow remote access from ineligible locations by claiming ancillary use.  So this proposal deals with an infrequent problem that already has a solution.

But since the FCC is asking for comments, here's mine:

Step away from the VPN.

Remember when Web hosting was first introduced?  It seemed like a good idea. Then a whole cottage industry popped up providing value-added Web hosting with a 10,000% markup.  VPN rules would make remote access to applications eligible, and those same Web hosts would increase their functionality and price.  And new cottage industries would pop up, offering schools functionality they don't need, and the E-Rate funding encourages schools to go for it.

And this proposal increases the digital divide.  Students whose families can afford broadband Internet access and a home computer will have access to school resources.  Students whose families cannot afford Internet access will be denied access to those resources.

Let's look at SETDA's reasons for making VPNs eligible:
  1. Give students access to content from home.  First, most of this stuff should be webified without much cost.  Second, if student access to resources from home is eligible, shouldn't the student's home Internet access costs be eligible?  Make VPNs eligible, and you've put an ugly can of worms in the can opener....
  2. Filter student access.  The only way that works is if parents agree to allow the school to configure their computer to force a VPN connection and disallow all other Internet access.  See, to get to the school's VPN, the home computer has to go on the Internet.  So the user can access the Internet without ever connecting to the VPN.  Computers can be configured to force a VPN connection, but I'm not going to let my school lock down the computers in my household.  To say nothing of the expense of configuring all those computers.
  3. Track student usage.  What?  How are schools going to use data on which websites students and their parents access from home?  I would not be happy to share my children's Web browsing with the school district, and I definitely don't want to share my addiction to online sudoku with them.
What SETDA mentions, but does not state outright, is that this would be useful for districts with 1-to-1 initiatives.  If I were a tech director giving out laptops to students, then I would want to configure them to force them to connect to the VPN and only browse the Internet through the school's infrastructure, both for content filtering and to reduce the chances of the computer getting infected.  So maybe I could see allowing schools to set up remote VPN access for school-owned devices.

But a school with a 1-to-1 initiative and this sort of VPN is going to find itself in the unusual position of needing more Internet access in the evening.  Because student Web browsing is going to use twice the normal bandwidth going through the school VPN (ignoring any overhead from encryption or connection management), because every page a student loads has to come in through the school's Internet connection, then go back out over the Internet connection to the student.  I can't speak for other kids, but mine definitely use the Internet more outside of school than inside.  I think they watch more TV shows on the computer than on the TV.  Those video streams would have to come in from YouTube to the school, then back out from the school to my kids.

Giving VPN access to students from home will force schools with 1-to-1 access to increase their bandwidth to handle their after-school traffic.

Even districts without 1-to-1 initiatives may run into problems.  If a district has reasonably affluent families, then a lot of kids will use the VPN to get at their school files from home.  Junior will want to tweak his PowerPoint presentation from home, and of course the presentation will include lots of large graphic and video files.  That monster .pptx file is going to eat up school bandwidth when Junior opens it and every time he saves.

Schools will have to increase Internet bandwidth to handle all the traffic outside of school hours, which will mean increased demand for E-Rate funding.  We really don't need to increase demand.

So to the extent this change will have any effect, it will:
  1. Provide incentive for schools to invest in a fading technology.
  2. Increase the digital divide.
  3. Increase bandwidth needs, thereby increasing funding demand.
Step away from the VPN.

Who are these people?

Time for retinal scans over at the FCC, because they are just not acting like themselves.

Faithful readers will know that I like nothing better than beating a dead horse, and one of my recurring snarks has been that the FCC never makes its own deadlines, which I find especially ironic when they are denying people for missing a deadline.

So when I began reading yesterday's appeal decision, I started winding up my rhetorical bat: they denied 8 appeals because the appellants missed the deadline.  "Oh, goody," I thought, "plenty of fodder for a tirade on how the FCC never makes deadlines; I'll smack this one out of the park."  I skipped to the appendix to see how many years ago the appeals were filed.

Holy crap!  All the appeals were filed in the last 60 days.  Well, I guess I'll just drag my bat back to the dugout while muttering a defeated "Way to go, FCC."

At least I still have the 2-in-5 Rule and Cost-Effectiveness Reviews to kick around.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Secret Rule Changes

Here's an appeal decision that changes a rule, only no one knows it, because the rule is secret.  I mean, this rule wouldn't even be in the 700-page tome of secret rules.  It is a rule that dare not speak its name.  It's only known to those of us who have watched enough FRNs go into the USAC black box that we can discern how things are done.  And to send something into this particular black box, you had to have had a COMAD recovery, which means few people have much experience with it.

Up to this point, if USAC needed to recover funds (if they COMADed an FRN which already had disbursements, usual the result of an audit), they would go after whichever party submitted the voucher.  So if the service provider filed a SPI, USAC would pursue recovery from the service provider.  If the applicant filed a BEAR, they'd go after the applicant.

That's a little surprising, since in the Fourth Report and Order, which set the rules for recovery, the FCC said, "recovery actions should be directed to the party or parties that committed the rule or statutory violation in question."  But in a lot of cases, it's tough to say who violated the rules, so USAC seemed to be just going after whoever filed the invoice.

I gave a presentation on selecting a payment method yesterday, and I listed this practice as an advantage to choosing discounts over reimbursements; if you choose to have the service provider do a SPI, in the unlikely event of recovery, USAC releases the hounds on the service provider.  I guess the FCC heard me, because the same day, they pulled the rule out from under me.

In this appeal, the service provider installed a bunch of equipment in a charter school and submitted a SPI and got paid.  Later, USAC discovered that the school had closed before the equipment was installed.  Since the invoice was a SPI, USAC pursued the service provider.  (Actually, since the violation occurred before the Fourth Report & Order, USAC properly followed the COMAD Order, which said USAC should always collect from the service provider.)  The service provider appealed, saying it had no way of knowing the school was closed.  And the FCC agreed.

I'm afraid this means that in the future, USAC will feel obligated to try to figure out who was at fault, and pursue that person.  So a secret rule may just have changed.  Of course, we won't know if the rule has changed until we've seen enough recovery cases to discern what rules are in USAC's black box.

Meanwhile, this appeal covers more than half a million dollars in funding that USAC is now supposed to recover from a non-existent school.  Bummer.  And I wonder what happened to the equipment, which was worth $560,498.52?