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Thursday, December 22, 2016


Wow, now here's a bad idea.  You can only contact USAC's Ombudsman through the Client Service Bureau.  Try emailing the ombudsman, and you get an auto-reply telling you to contact CSB (in the E-Rate, even customer service hides behind an acronym). Is this part of the new "Customer Engagement"?

I shouldn't complain, because it's good news for E-Rate consultants.  What will an applicant do when they get a response from CSB that is a quote from some SLD Web page that doesn't answer their question, but has whatever keyword the CSB rep searched for in trying to find an answer?  The Ombudman was created to help applicants who were getting stymied by CSB (or other contacts with USAC).  Now if you can't get a straight answer from the CSB (who, I believe, work in Lawrence, KS for Vangent, a division of General Dynamics, which is contracted by Solix, which is contracted by USAC, unless one of those contracts has changed), you can contact...the CSB.  And if that doesn't work, you can go to...the CSB.  After a couple of rounds of getting unhelpful quotes from SLD Web pages, applicants will have no choice but to ask a consultant (or maybe a state E-Rate coordinator, though back in 2009, the GAO said that 79% of applicants found consultants are very or extremely helpful, while only 67% said state coordinators were).

Speaking for myself, the disappearance of the Ombudsman just means that instead of contacting that office, I'll go straight to whichever USAC employee has the info I need.  As an E-Rate professional, I know who does what inside USAC, and usually I have met the people involved.  I was only using the Ombudsman to be respectful of other USAC staff's time.  (I apologize in advance to all the folks at USAC who will be hearing from me more often.)  But a regular applicant has not had the good fortune to interact with the lovely people at USAC (that's meant to be unctuous, not sarcastic; they really are nice people), so the applicant is stuck.  I guess they'll contact Craig Davis directly, or try to write to the USAC Board.

Can we start a petition to save the Ombudsman?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

And so the Wheeler turns...

Well, it's official, Chairman Wheeler resigned effective January 20, 2017, the day President Trump is inaugurated.With the Senate not confirming Commissioner Rosenworcel before recess, she's gone, too.

So we're down to 2 Republicans and 1 Democrat.  The new prez will nominate 2 more commissioners, a Republican and a Democrat.  Well, actually, the rule is that the commission can't have more than 3 commissioners from any party, so maybe he could nominate a Republican and someone who doesn't belong to either party.  Normally that would be out of the question, but with this President....

Then the Senate has to approve the nominees.  The tradition has been that both nominees would be confirmed at the same time, but we may see that convention go by the wayside.  Will the Democrat get the Garland treatment?  Or will the President dilly-dally on nominating the non-Republican?

And what does it mean for the E-Rate?  Well, Commissioner Pai said, "We need to fire up the weed whacker...."  But it sounds like he's really gunning for Net Neutrality, municipal broadband and the like.  And a while a weed whacker sounds painful, we managed to survive Chairman Wheeler's "Strike Force."  And it's not guaranteed that Pai will become Chairman.  I suppose on January 21 Pai will be in charge at least until the other commissioners are appointed, but I don't know what he'll be able to do in the interregnum.

Commissioner Pai did float a proposal to dramatically simplify the program.  What should he focus on first?  Dump the 470!  If the program is simplified, that might be bad for consultants.  But I have faith in our government: every time the FCC "simplifies" the program, it confuses people and drives them into the arms of consultants.

Farewell, Chairman Wheeler.  You were a much better chairman that I expected.  And you've got to like someone who can laugh when he gets called a dingo.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Campus? More like Krampus.

Back when I live-blogged training, I pointed out the muddled misery caused by campus vs. location vs. school vs. entity.  Now the latest News Brief brings some additional information, which, as usual, means additional pain and confusion for applicants.

First, the definition of "campus" just got even muddier.  It used to be the only thing that split a campus was a public right-of-way.  Now any road (not necessarily public) or stream can split a campus.  What?!  Now I have to walk my clients' campuses looking for streams to see if I need to create annexes because there are different campuses?  Do gulches that only have water sometimes count as streams?  We can assume that if streams split campuses, rivers certainly would, but what about brooks or rills?  What if a stream runs between two buildings, but only partially crosses the campus?  What if a road crosses a stream? Can a stream/road combo create a separate campus?  Suddenly, I feel like I'm playing the latest expansion pack of Carcassonne.

Hey, our local primary school was built on wetlands (I know you can't believe it, but it's true).  Do wetlands count as part of a stream for purposes of determining campusity?

What is a "road" that's not a public right-of-way?  A driveway?  I can't find a good definition of "road" anywhere.  And the legal treatment of vehicular pathways seems to vary quite a bit from state to state.  How can I learn the legal status of the driveways on my campus to try to figure out if they meet the (non-existent) definition of "road"?

Now that I don't know whether I have one campus or several, let's use that non-definition to determine whether a service is C1 or C2.  Buckle up!

The first example looks easy: if you have one school on one campus, all connections are C2, even if you have multiple buildings on that campus.  OK, but what if Google Maps shows the vehicular pathways on my campus as roads?  Does that make them roads?  If the town maintenance department has to use that pathway to get to it's salt storage building, does that make it a road?  What if the driveway is shared by two schools?

How did they write the second example without mentioning the word "annex"?  That's what we're talking about, right?  What else would a separate location of a single school be called?  [Or will annexes go extinct when EPC hits the trash heap next year?  Oh, goody, we can make all those annexes back into entities (well, annexes are listed under "Related Entities," so I guess an annex is an entity, but you know, I mean "entity" as in "location with a Billed Entity Number," not "entity" as in "thingy in the EPC database, whether or not is has a BEN").]

And their example is ridiculous.  Choosing two campuses separated by a major thoroughfare was facile; how about using a campus with a stream through it as your example?  But then the unrealism kicks in: "The middle school has administratively defined the grounds on one side of the thoroughfare as 'Campus A' and the separate and distinct grounds on the other side as 'Campus B.'"  What?  "Administratively defined"?  What does that mean?  They call the two buildings by 2 different names?  Different mailing addresses? What if my lovely campus has a stream running between two buildings, but we've never identified them as separate campuses?  Are they still separate campuses?  When this hits the real world, no one will now what to do.

But the third example takes us from the muddy to the absurd.  Three schools in one building are 3 campuses, and connections between those schools are C1.  Oh, my aching head.  Let's just take an unrealistically simple example where each school has an MDF, and all horizontal runs stay inside school boundaries.  Now if I want to connect those 3 MDFs with fiber runs, those connections count as self-provisioned fiber.  Which means that I need to convince someone to give me a bid on a leased dark fiber and on some kind of lit fiber service inside my building, so that I can demonstrate that self-provisioned is more cost-effective than the other options.  What service provider is going to prepare that bid, knowing they can't beat the self-provisioned cost?  And what if the cable company does come in and proposes cable modems in every MDF VPNed together?  Dang, that's going to be pretty cheap.  Do I really have to put my LAN backbone on a VPN? I guess we have to put latency specs in our RFPs, which is beyond the expertise of your average school tech person.  So now the district has to hire a fiber engineer to do a design for a leased fiber infrastructure which is not going to be built under any circumstances.

And that's all in USAC's unrealistically clean example.  Let's take a pessimistic, but not unrealistic example.  Let's say you have a building that's basically just a 400-foot-long hallway with classrooms off each side (the hallway doesn't have to be straight; I can think of several schools that have U-shaped or O-shaped hallways that long).  It's a 3-story building, and you're going to put 3 schools in there, so naturally you put a school on each floor.  Because of that hallway length, you can't serve a whole floor with a single closet, but a clever network designer would realize that if you put in one closet on each side of the 2nd floor, each closet would be able to serve all 3 floors for half the building.  So what now?  Is each individual cable run to the first and third floors a C1 connection?  What does that make those runs, self-provisioned copper?  Is that eligible?  Do I still have to compare the cost of each run to a leased dark fiber and lit fiber connection between my classroom and the wiring closet?  Can I compare it to the cost of leased dark copper and lit copper?  (I know, no one offers that service, but no one offers lit fiber inside your own building, either.)   If I've got 4 runs to one classroom, do I have to get a bid for 4 leased pairs and a bid for 4 lit fiber connections?

And if all 3 schools share a cafeteria, and you put an access point in there, now I have to share the cost of that run and that switch port among the C2 budgets of all 3 schools.  And what if only 2 of the schools in that building share an art room?  As long as the drops in that classroom go back to a closet located in one of those 2 schools, I guess I just cost-allocate it between those 2 schools?

And then one of the schools closes, and a new school opens in that space.  (You would think that's very unusual, but some districts have figured out that if they create academies, when that academy fails to meet NCLB requirements for 3 years, they can just close that academy and open a new one, and they have a clean slate.  It looks like a district trying innovative new ideas, but it's just a shell game.)  Does the new school have to rebid the cable runs to its location?  What if that was the school on the second floor?  Do the other schools have to rebid their C1 connections to the second floor, since there's a new entity there?

OK, now I've gotten to extreme (but not unrealistic) cases. Most shared buildings will be somewhere in between.  Some closets will serve only one school, but most closets will serve classrooms in multiple schools.  So most closets will have both C1 and C2 connections.  Now the switches are going to have both C1 and C2 connections going into them, so you'll have to cost-allocate the cost of switches across categories?  There's a brand-new headache.

And then at some point the administration is going to decide to swap rooms between that ungraded special ed classroom (which has students from more than one school,so it's shared, so it's C2) and the 4th-grade classroom next door (which had been served by a closet in the Middle School sharing the building, so it was a C1 connection).  So the C2 connection becomes a C1 connection and vice versa.  Do I have to get leased dark fiber and lit fibers bids and compare them to the wire that's already there?  I can't even imagine what I'm supposed to do about a connection that was C1 and becomes C2.

And what about offices?  If the Superintendent's office is on that campus, what am I supposed to do about those connections?  Is an office that serves all schools in the building treated like a shared classroom?

You know what might simplify your life?  Find a shared room like the cafeteria, and put a fiber switch up on the wall.  Then have all your wiring closets connect to the cafeteria.  Since it's a shared room, all connections to it are C2.  And you'd have some great viral videos of the tech director with a lacrosse goalie stick trying to protect that switch during food fights.

Wait, who decides what is a "shared classroom"?  Can the schools just declare all wiring closets to be shared classrooms?  Then all the connections in the building are C2, regardless of which school they connect to.  Just don't look too closely, because the cost-allocation tangle could be extremely messy.

Excuse me, I need to find some aspirin, since it's too early to start drinking.

Monday, December 05, 2016


As 470 season heats up and the 471 window approaches, and yet no dark fiber requests from last year have been approved, here is a device we all need:
RESPeRATE Blood Pressure Lowering Device

[Of course, I'd prefer Resp-E-Rate, and I feel compelled to point out that the correct spelling is "respirate," but hey, at least the second R is capitalized.]

Thank you, Google.  How did you know?

Friday, November 04, 2016

Goodbye, old friend

Today we see the passing of the swoosh.  The sad event was foreshadowed at training, but it is jarring nonetheless.

So of course, I'm going to complain:
  1. The new logo doesn't say "USAC."  I can understand not wanting to work for "you-sack," but it's a little late now.  Also, we're not going to start saying "Universal Service Administrative Company," even after they shortened "Company" to "Co."  If they wanted to stop hearing you-sack, then they should have come up with an alternative name. Like Lunix or ACEN or something.
  2. It's all branding, right?  I mean, who really cares?  I'll tell you who cares: anyone who has made training materials, that's who.  That old logo is in hundreds of screenshots I put in EPC instruction manuals.  And it's not just that the page looks different (they also changed the color of the menu bar); that logo was actually a button which was used to get back to the Landing Page.  Are the folks over at USAC going to redo all those EPC video tutorials?
But I do have one positive thing to say about the new logo.

To me, the graphic looks like a storm of papers coming at me, which I find appropriate.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Expand the audits!

You know I hate audits, but today I'm going to call for more audits.  Or at least broader audits.  Hear me out, and I think you'll agree.

It all goes back to the Improper Payments Information Act, which is the source of the random audits.  The purpose of the act is to identify improper payments with an eye towards reducing improper payments.  What is an "improper payment"?
The term ‘‘improper payment’’—
(A) means any payment that should not have been made or that was made in an incorrect amount (including overpayments and underpayments) under statutory, contractual, administrative, or other legally applicable requirements....
The current IPIA audits certainly identify overpayments, but I'm not aware of any checks on underpayments.  I'd like to see some audits of invoices that have been "passed zero" or reduced, to make sure that no underpayment took place.

And while we're at it, let's have some audits of FRNs denied or reduced by PIA.  Because the IPIA says:
The term ‘‘payment’’ means any payment (including a commitment for future payment...).
I'm not a lawyer, but that looks to me like a Funding Commitment Decision Letter is a payment.  (Isn't that why the FCDL triggers the ADA?)

A bright IDER

OK, now it's time to save everybody some work.  The total failure of the 498 process and the difficulties in issuing PINs are making it impossible for a lot of applicants to get FY 2015-2016 BEARs in on time.  This was obvious in September, and was pointed out to the FCC and USAC at the DC training.

But I understand why we haven't yet seen an automatic invoice deadline extension of all 2015-2016 FRNs.  The FCC and USAC are afraid that as soon as they give an extension, applicants will take their feet off the accelerator.  It makes sense in a "our convenience is more important than properly disbursing funds" kind of way to keep applicants fearful of missing that deadline for as long as possible.

But now, it's time to give the extension.  Starting this week, applicants will begin flooding USAC with extension requests, which will automatically be granted.  Why not save everybody some paperwork and just grant the extensions now?  USAC is clearly overwhelmed, so let's not add a raft of extension requests to their plate.

Monday, September 26, 2016

On-premise Category One circuits

15 minutes for the Eligible Services List?  Oh, dear.  Well, since the ESL is so brief now, we got through it in about that time.  But then came the questions.

The thorny questions were all about the new definition of "entity" (as in location/campus, not "entity" as in organization).  What we heard was that if you have a single building which the state DOE considers, say, a middle school and a high school, they are two entities, and any connection between those entities is Category One.  On the flip side, if an annex is across the street from its parent entity, that connection is Category Two.  Among the questions this brings up:
  1. If we have to apply under Category One for the fiber between the middle school IDFs and the high school MDF, what are those connections?  A self-provisioned network?  Meaning we also have to request bids for leased dark fiber inside the building?  Would the core switch then be partially C1, since it is lighting up fibers to the middle school IDFs, which are now C1?
  2. What if we have a pre-existing Category One contract for the WAN between a school and its annex?  Do we have to rebid that as a C2 service?  If it's leased lit fiber, how do we recast that as C2?
  3. What about a building that has 3 different schools in it, but the schools share the classrooms?
  4. What about our middle school/high school building if the IDF is sitting in the middle school, but has 4 cable runs to a high school classroom.  Are those 4 cable runs now C1?
And what answer did we get?  "Those are good questions."

New VP

As you might expect, my reporting from the USAC training will involve me taking tidbits out of context and giving my opinions.

I was able to drag myself down for the Beginners session, and I learned something!  Mackenzie said that the target length for the filing window is around 75 days.  I had certainly noticed that the window is usually around 75 days, but this is the first time I've ever heard that it's an actual target.

I thought Craig Davis, new head of the E-Rate program for USAC ("Vice President, Schools & Libraries Program"), struck a nice balance of positivity and realism.

Mr. Davis said that USAC will shortly hire a new Director of Stakeholder Engagement.  I guess it's not news, since the job listing was posted 7 months ago, but it's news to me.  I'm all for more stakeholder engagement, but reading the job description, the "Your Role" section mentions "understand the challenges our stakeholders face", but under "Responsibilities," it's all about pushing information out to stakeholders.  There is no mention of listening to stakeholders.  I guess I was hoping "engagement" would involve information flowing both ways.  But after looking at the background of the USAC-wide VP of Stakeholder engagement, I can see that "engagement" is what those of us without MBAs would call "marketing."  Oh, well.

Mr. Davis also mentioned that he wanted to "de-leverage your risk" in applying for the E-Rate.  That sounds good.  Since I'm not investing in E-Rate, I'm not clear on what my risk is, or how I'm leveraged, but I'm hoping it means "reduce the risk of funding denial."  I think USAC and the FCC moved a long way in that direction in the 3 years after Bishop Perry, but I'm hoping this means we'll see more movement in that direction.

Come on, baby, light my fiber

I'm trying to stay relaxed this year, just rolling with the weirdness, and I made it until the Broadband Fiber Options presentation before I started grinding my teeth.

First, the little gripes.  We learned that if you say "self-provisioned network" on the Form 470, and describe it as "dark fiber" in your RFP, that will create difficulties in getting through PIA.  I have three problems with that:
  1. Self-provisioned fiber is dark fiber.  Only at USAC does "dark fiber" mean a leased service.  In the rest of the world, any fiber that is not lit by the service provider is "dark fiber."  In fact, if you say to a service provider that you want to build a dark fiber network, they will think you want what USAC calls a "self-provisioned network."
  2. How is an applicant supposed to know that "dark fiber" means "leased dark fiber"?  In the ESL, it's always "leased dark fiber," not just "dark fiber."
  3. Number one question I get from potential bidders: "What does 'self-provisioned' mean?"  I've never heard anyone outside the E-Rate program use that term.  
So if applicants only use the term "self-provisioned network," service providers that have not spent much time on the E-Rate program will think that the applicant is looking for some kind of deal where the applicant buys the cable and the service provider puts it on the poles.  And if you don't say it's dark, the service provider will want to know if they're expected to light the fiber.

I understand the need for jargon, but if you take a term that has an actual meaning ("dark fiber" or "RFP") and use them to mean something else ("leased dark fiber contract" and "specifications or any other information beyond what's on this 470"), it creates confusion.  And when you appropriate a commonly-used term as jargon, it makes it very difficult to clear up what your jargon means. 

But the real teeth-grinding started when we got into the requirement that leased dark fiber must be lit before the end of the funding year.  I heard in the hallway that fiber FRNs haven't been approved yet.  If they got approved today, those applicants would have 9 months to do all the engineering, permitting, make-ready, installation and testing.  For small, simple projects, that might be enough time.  For large, complex projects, it just isn't enough time.  And if you don't get approved until February, you only have 4 months to get all that done.  The FCC did say that if you got an FCDL after March 1 of the funding year, you could file an appeal saying that you should get another year to light the fiber, and the FCC might grant that appeal.  Two problems: 1) "might"; really, you think someone should be able to install a self-provisioned network in a couple of months? and 2) there is no precedent on this, so there will be no quickie appeal decision, which means the response time on your appeal will be measured in months and years.

And what problem is solved with this weird restriction?  Does the FCC really think that there is an applicant out there thinking, "Hey, let's build a self-provisioned network this year in case we need it in a couple of years," or "Hey, let's lease a fiber pair this year because we're going to need it in 3 years."

A terrible restriction to prevent a non-existent problem.

New Face

A little liveblogging from the USAC training in DC.

So far, the biggest news comes from the cover of the handout folio:

Where's the yellow swoosh?  Is the logo changing?  Or is USAC just saving some money by printing in one color? (Although it looks like there are four different blues, which makes me think they couldn't get the one-color savings.)

Other important news: Don't count on USAC to provide your breakfast.  There was a meager table, quickly cleared away.  Plenty of caffeine, though.

Lots of new faces in the opening remarks.  They're saying all the right things, too.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yukon Ho!

I was poking around the Search Commitments tool, and I thought, "I wonder what's the biggest FRN committed so far?"  $27 million in E-Rate funding!  "Wow," I thought, "can even NYC get that high with the $150/student cap on Category 2?"  So I looked over at the applicant name.  "Lower Kuskokwim? This must be a typo.  Wait, is that in Alaska?"  Yup.  That district of 4,025 students spends over $30 million on Internet and WAN each year.  Well, the E-Rate spends $27 million and they spend $3 million.  That's a pre-discount cost of $7,668.73 per student.  Every year.  Wow.  Kind of puts that $150/student Category 2 budget in a different perspective, doesn't it?

How could data transmission possibly cost so much?  Just look at the map of the schools.  Some of those schools are over 100 miles from the district office.  At 26,253.5 square miles in area, it's the 8th-largest district in Alaska (and the 8th-largest in the U.S., since the 14 largest districts are all in Alaska).  Microwave towers can only be like 30 miles apart, right?  And I don't think anyone's stringing fiber across the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  Here's a map showing how it's done.

Getting back to my first thought: with around 1 million students, the NYCDOE can get an average of around $30 million in C2 funding every year (though they could take it in one $150 million pile if they wanted).

Monday, June 20, 2016

Hope you like spam

I was looking at the new tool for downloading 471 info, and of course I have nothing but complaints.

  1. No ability to filter results.  Download the whole state, or download nothing.  That's a step backwards in functionality.
  2. No ability to select fields.  Another step backwards.
  3. Excel?  Really?  Getting our tools to step into various tabs of an Excel workbook is just a joy.
  4. It's bad enough that the file contains the email address for the Contact Person, but even worse, the Authorizer's email is in there.  Before last year, you couldn't even get the Authorizer's email by looking at a form.  And the Authorizer's title is in the file.  Now anyone can download thousands of email addresses.  And since EPC uses your email address as your account name, and doesn't allow alternate email addresses in the forms, those email addresses are going to be the real email address of those administrators.  Look for an increase in spammers and hackers coming to your inbox soon.  (Consultants' email addresses are also exposed now, but at least one commissioner will be happy to see consultants suffer.)
EPC continues to underwhelm.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Полный стол

And now the press release is out, so here's the history table updated:
FY Window close Days passed PIA approved Days passed First FCDL Total days Millions Appli-cations $/app
2016 5/26/2016 14 6/9/2016 7 6/16/2016 21 $18 2,251 $7,996
2015 4/16/2015 -27 3/20/2015 62 5/21/2015 35 $151 7,100 $21,268
2014 3/26/2014 -19 3/7/2014 69 5/15/2014 50 $607 14,600 $41,575
2013 3/14/2013 57 5/10/2013 19 5/29/2013 76 $130 12,023 $10,813
2012 3/20/2012 35 4/24/2012 77 7/10/2012 112 $646 23,800 $27,143
2011 3/24/2011 75 6/7/2011 19 6/26/2011 94 $398 18,500 $21,514
2010 2/11/2010 91 5/13/2010 13 5/26/2010 104 $429 18,200 $23,571
2009 2/12/2009 49 4/2/2009 26 4/28/2009 75 $134 6,931 $19,333
2008 2/7/2008 63 4/10/2008 21 5/1/2008 84 $352 10,000 $35,200
2007 2/8/2007 4/23/2007 74 $202 21,000 $9,619
2006 2/16/2006 4/26/2006 69 $184 4,880 $37,705
2005 2/17/2005 6/27/2005 130 $342 7,700 $44,416
2004 2/4/2004 4/27/2004 83 $43
2003 1/16/2003 5/1/2003 105 $230
2002 1/17/2002 4/24/2002 97 $233 9,300 $25,054
2001 1/18/2001 7/23/2001 186 $478
2000 1/19/2000 4/14/2000 86 $253 13,000 $19,462
1999 3/11/1999 7/13/1999 124 $116 6,000 $19,333
1998 11/23/1998 $73 3,000 $24,333

By far the tiniest wave ever, both in dollars and number of applications.  And yes, it was mostly small applications: the last column shows the average total funding requested per application.  Much smaller than normal, but it looks like 2013 and 2007 were at least in the same ballpark.

Serious jacking on this wave

The first wave of FCDLs came out at 2:08 am today.  Huzzah!  And I learned about it in a series of emails.  Whooppee!

This wave certainly broke records for speed.  Only 3 weeks after the window close and one week after the FCC approved the secret PIA procedures, we have funding!  You can see below how that compares with past years.

How big was the wave?  I don't see a way to find the amount of dollars or number of applications approved.  The Search of Commitments and the Data Retrieval Tool don't have an option for 2016 funding.  I guess I'll have to wait for the press release.

Based on my own small sample, it seems that, as I predicted in 2007, once the filing window deadline was moved to May, Parkinson's Law reduced the amount of review done on small applications.  I mean really, when was it ever cost-effective to dig into a $109 monthly phone bill to see if it included an ineligible charge for $2.38?

(Some will say that the reduced need for review was due to changes in the Form 471 that gave PIA more of the info they needed.  I don't buy that.)

Life simplified for many applicants, and no real opportunity for waste, fraud or abuse.  Let's close the window in May every year.

Here's the history table updated:
FYWindow closeDays passedPIA approvedDays passedFirst FCDLTotal daysMillionsApplications
I guess I'll have to post it again after we learn the amount of dollars or number of applications approved.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Last hurdle cleared?

Today the FCC approved the PIA application processing procedures.  For those of you unfamiliar with what that means, every year, USAC sends the FCC a secret document describing the procedures they will use to review applications.  (That used to be a 700-page tome, but I wonder if it's larger or smaller than last year with the new EPC system.)  The FCC has determined that the procedures for routine processing of funding applications is actually a law-enforcement activity, and thus exempt from Freedom of Information Act requirements.  So we have the ironic situation of the FCC publicly approving rules that are kept secret.

Now that the Form 486 is available on EPC, and PIA processing rules have been approved, we could see the first wave of funding approvals at any time.  I'm betting on Tuesday, June 14th, but that's a total guess.  In the past, it has never been less than 13 days between the approval of PIA procedures and release of the first funding wave, but this could definitely be the year that the record falls.  It definitely seems like we'll be setting a new record for the fewest days between the close of the window and the date of the first FCDL.

Here's a table of dates from past years:
FY Window close Days passed PIA approved Days passed First FCDL Total days Millions Applications
2016 5/26/2016 14 6/9/2016
2015 4/16/2015 -27 3/20/2015 62 5/21/2015 35 $151 7,100
2014 3/26/2014 -19 3/7/2014 69 5/15/2014 50 $607 14,600
2013 3/14/2013 57 5/10/2013 19 5/29/2013 76 $130 12,023
2012 3/20/2012 35 4/24/2012 77 7/10/2012 112 $646 23,800
2011 3/24/2011 75 6/7/2011 19 6/26/2011 94 $398 18,500
2010 2/11/2010 91 5/13/2010 13 5/26/2010 104 $429 18,200
2009 2/12/2009 49 4/2/2009 26 4/28/2009 75 $134 6,931
2008 2/7/2008 63 4/10/2008 21 5/1/2008 84 $352 10,000
2007 2/8/2007 4/23/2007 74 $202 21,000
2006 2/16/2006 4/26/2006 69 $184 4,880
2005 2/17/2005 6/27/2005 130 $342 7,700
2004 2/4/2004 4/27/2004 83 $43
2003 1/16/2003 5/1/2003 105 $230
2002 1/17/2002 4/24/2002 97 $233 9,300
2001 1/18/2001 7/23/2001 186 $478
2000 1/19/2000 4/14/2000 86 $253 13,000
1999 3/11/1999 7/13/1999 124 $116 6,000
1998 11/23/1998 $73 3,000
I'll update that in a post after the first wave comes out.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

An inconvenient truth

Am I missing something?  Or is everybody else missing something?

Yesterday, USAC sent the FCC the Demand Estimate for FY2016 (well, since the window for consortia and libraries isn't closed yet, it feels more like a Demand Estimate estimate).  Today, the FCC authorized the funding of all Category 1 and Category 2 funding requests.  That notice also authorized a $1.9 billion rollover.

First, the obvious good news:
  1. All C1 and C2 funding requests will be approved.
  2. Fast action by USAC and the FCC means that we could see C2 funding approvals as early as this month.
Now onto what no one else seems to have noticed.  No one noticed it last year, either.

It has to do with what people think the filing window, and what it really is.

People think that the filing window is the period in which you're allowed to file a Form 471.  File after the deadline, and your application is automatically denied.  And it has been true that if you missed the deadline, you didn't get funded.

But that's not really what the filing window actually is.  What is it?  Let's go to the rules, in this case 47 C.F.R. §54.507(c):
Requests. The Administrator shall implement an initial filing period that treats all schools and libraries filing an application within that period as if their applications were simultaneously received. The initial filing period shall begin and conclude on dates to be determined by the Administrator with the approval of the Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau. The Administrator shall maintain on the Administrator's Web site a running tally of the funds already committed for the existing funding year. The Administrator may implement such additional filing periods as it deems necessary.
The close of the filing window is not an application deadline.  It just means that your application will not be considered as having been filed first, at exactly the same moment as everybody else who filed in the window.

Originally, the E-Rate was set up as a first-come, first-served program; USAC was supposed to fund requests as they came in, until they hit the funding cap.  But the FCC didn't think is was prudent to have applicants rushing to get their applications in, so in the early days of the program, the Third Report and Order established the filing window, and said that any applications filed in the window would be considered simultaneously filed.

Since funding requests were always over the cap, the effect was that if you didn't file in the window, you didn't get funded, because the funding ran out before it funded all the requests filed in the window.

The close of the filing window has effectively been an application deadline for all those years, but it is not actually a deadline.

Then last year, it happened: the fund didn't run out of money.  And this year, it's happened again.  For FY2016, the cap is $3.939 billion, and USAC estimates we'll have $1.9 billion in rollover.  So USAC is allowed to commit up to $5.839 billion.  The estimated demand is $3.609 billion.  So we have waaay more money than we need to fund all the applications filed in the window.

So what should happen?  The Third Report and Order envisioned the possibility of multiple windows, but there's no need.  USAC should just keep accepting applications until the funding runs out.  So if a district gets a grant in October to purchase a new wireless infrastructure, let them go through the 470 and 471 process then, and if there is still funding left, fund that district's request at that point.  That's the way the program was originally envisioned, and that's what the rules say.

Or am I missing something?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


What's under my skin this morning?  The fact that the Form 471 certification page does some processing after I check every box.  See, for someone who does a lot of certifications, that page is: space-tab-space-tab-number-tab-n-tab-n-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-space-tab-tab-tab-space.  That page is done in seconds.

But with the new form, the little "Working..." box pops up for a split second every time I check a box.  No biggy, except if I hit the tab key before the page is done working, it ignores my tab and when I click the space bar, it unchecks the box.  So now that page is: space-wait-tab-space-wait-tab....  It's like a demented waltz-tango hybrid.  And the page's Working doesn't always take the same amount of time, so it's like a waltz-tango with a 2-year-old setting the rhythm.

My time on the page is easily tripled because of this one little thing.  And why?  OK, it's schmancy that the "Certify" button doesn't go live until all the boxes are checked, but it's bad interface design.  Why not just have the system verify the checkboxes after the person clicks Certify?  That way, you can tell the user what they missed, and tell them to go back and fix it, rather than having the user just stare at an inscrutable gray "Certify" button and wonder what's going on.

How many calls will CSB get tomorrow because a panicked applicant has reached the last page, and cant figure out why the Certify button is gray?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Modest Proposal

After a conference call today listening to normally circumspect people throwing rocks through the filing window, it occurred to me that instead of extending the filing window, we should reset it.  Instead of acting like it's just a little extra hassle this year, USAC and the FCC should acknowledge that the current status of the forms is unacceptable, and close down the window, reopening when the forms are ready.

Does that seem extreme?  Well, consider a statewide consortium.  The number of entities on their Form 470 is autofilled by the system, based on the data in each of the billed entities in the consortium.  So until every entity has created an Account Administrator and corrected the hash of related entities (which did not import into the new system correctly for a large number of applicants), checked parent/child relationships, converted BENs to annexes as necessary, etc., etc., the consortium can't file a correct 470.

And there are elements of the system that worked last week, but don't work this week.

It's just not fair to ask applicants to use a filing system that isn't even stable, much less complete.

So let's open the window when the forms are complete and stable.

We wouldn't need as long a window, since applicants will have prepared once already.  But the FCC has hinted that they want 60-day bid periods for complex fiber builds, and we should allow those applicants to have 2 weeks to review proposals, so we need a 75-day window.

So there's my suggestion: finalize the application system, then open the window for 75 days.  I'm guessing we're a month or two away from a stable, complete application system, so we probably wouldn't be able to close the window before the start of the funding year, but that doesn't seem as bad to me as asking applicants to use a broken system.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Freedom is the open window

In case you hadn't heard, the filing window for FY 2016-2017 has been set: February 3rd to April 29th.

Here's my annual spreadsheet of window history:
FY ESL release Window announced Days to announce Window open 60 days? Window close Window days
2005 10/14/2004 11/5/2004 22 12/14/2004 61 2/17/2005 65
2006 11/22/2005 11/23/2005 1 12/6/2005 14 2/16/2006 72
2007 10/19/2006 10/20/2006 1 11/14/2006 26 2/7/2007 85
2008 10/19/2007 10/28/2007 9 11/7/2007 19 2/7/2008 92
2009 11/21/2008 11/24/2008 3 12/2/2008 11 2/12/2009 72
2010 12/2/2009 12/3/2009 1 12/3/2009 1 2/11/2010 70
2011 12/6/2010 12/10/2010 4 1/11/2011 36 3/24/2011 72
2012 9/28/2011 11/22/2011 55 1/9/2012 103 3/20/2012 71
2013 9/27/2012 11/13/2012 47 12/12/2012 76 3/14/2013 92
2014 10/22/2013 11/20/2013 29 1/9/2014 79 3/26/2014 76
2015 10/28/2014 12/19/2014 52 1/14/2015 78 3/26/2015 71
2016 9/11/2015 1/25/2016 136 2/3/2016 145 4/29/2016 86

It's a whole new ballgame!  Other than the date the ESL was released and the length of the window, everything is unprecedented.

My dream of a compressed PIA review period is coming true.

Just like last year, you can complete and pay for Category 2 purchases before you file the Form 471 for those purchases, since the filing window closes after the April 1 start date for C2 installation.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Eligible vs. fundable

Here's the sort of thing I think about in the shower:

So let's say you're a district with a 40% discount looking for a VoIP/Internet bundle for FY 2016-2017.  Well, next year 40% schools will have stepped down to 0% for voice, so you're only getting funding for the Internet portion.  When you create your evaluation, only the price of the Internet should be considered in the most-heavily-weighted Price criterion, right?

Not so fast.  The rule says that "you must include the price of the eligible products and services as a factor and that factor must be weighted more heavily than any other single factor."  Well, voice is an eligible service.  Yes, your discount for that service is 0%, but that doesn't make it ineligible.  "Not funded" is not the same as "not eligible."

So even though you won't get funding for the voice, don't you have to include the cost of voice in the price of eligible services?

That's good news for applicants, since it lets you choose the overall cheapest option.  And if you get 2 bids, both for $1,000, but one of them says it's $500 Internet+$500 voice and the other says $800 Internet+$200 voice, you can choose the latter, which gets you an extra $120/month in funding.