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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bishop Perry costing us

When I read the Bishop Perry Order, I thought, "Great!" Then I thought, "That's going to be expensive!" And now the price tag is in: $3.5 million for this quarter. You've got to figure the cost will go down in future quarters, but I'm thinkin' at least $8 million/year. But I think it's worth it, because it will make the program seem much less capricious to applicants.

Training: there's hope

Two other pieces of news from the USAC board meeting: first, the SLD is going to hire a Training Program Manager. At least it will be good news if it is a sign that the SLD has realized that more attention needs to be paid to training. It won't be good news if it just means there will be someone spending their whole day managing the current meager training budget.

Second, the San Diego training sold out in 3 days. That's the 7th training date, and the really eager people from CA were probably signed up elsewhere, and it still filled up in 3 days. The SLD needs to have a lot more dates. The problem is that it must be tough on the SLD folks to do all that traveling. The solution: Webinars. They are far from ideal, but really, a lecture to 200 people is not interactive. We were not encouraged to ask questions as we went along, and an awful lot of the questions we sent in on those little yellow cards never did get answered because time ran out. But with Webinars, you wouldn't have to do a 1.5-day, one-size-fits-all presentation. You could do a series like the one I ran last year. One- or two-hour seminars on a narrow topic. Something like this:
August: E-Rate overview for applicants
September: Technology planning
October: The Form 470 and competitive bidding
November: E-Rate overview for service providers
December: The Form 471
January: Item 21 Attachments
February: Getting a SPIN and filing the SPAC
March: The PIA process
April: SPIN changes and service substitutions
May: Appeals
June: The Form 486 and CIPA
July: Invoicing for service providers
August: Invoicing for applicants

Maybe also some time in September a workshop for E-Rate vets about recent changes.

What's in a name?

The best name for a department at SLD: the "Dunning & Good Samaritan Unit." I mean, that name has it all: a biblical reference, the word "dun," which we don't see often enough, and a wonderful good cop/bad cop juxtaposition of functions joined by an ampersand and the word "unit."

Hey, it's a blog. Shouldn't I have a completely frivoulous post now and then?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"New" VP: thumbs up!

So I've been checking the front page of the SLD Web site to see if they announce the comment period for the Eligible Services List. Still nothing.

But I did see an announcement today that Mel Blackwell has been named by the USAC board to VP for the Schools & Libraries Program. I don't think that's front page news, since the name of the VP doesn't matter a whit to 99% of applicants; they'll never have direct contact with him. And he's been the interim for what, a year already? So it's not really news. But I guess there isn't a Business section on the SLD Web site, so the front page it is.

I'm happy to have him as VP. I don't know if he's a good manager or not, but here's what I like about him: every time I've heard him speak, he's used the phrase "customer service" over and over. It struck me the first time I heard him say it, because it was so at odds with the experience of most applicants. He says it often enough that when I heard him talking this week, I actually noticed when he missed an opportunity to say it. If I were playing "meeting bingo" (where you pass time in a meeting by making a bingo card with an overused word or phrase in each box and Xing out boxes as people say the words and phrases in them until you have bingo) at the SLD, if the VP were going to be in the meeting, I'd definitely want "customer service" on my card.

And that's a good thing. In my mind, one of the tasks of an executive is to affect organizational culture. And I think it has great effect for him to characterize the SLD's relationship with applicants as "customer service." The repitition is important in changing the way people think. And I think I've seen a change in attitude at the SLD (and Solix, the subcontractor that runs PIA). Not that I've had many problems in the past, but I sense a shift in my dealings with PIA: I am the customer.

Or maybe Mr. Blackwell's repitition has changed my perception.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The ESL is here!

At today's Schools & Libraries Committee meeting, Mel Blackwell brought us all good news: the proposed Eligible Services List for 2007-2008 was released on Friday. I just took a glance at it, so I don't have any comments, except that it has slimmed down from 74 pages to 45 pages. Excellent! The layout is a bit better, too. I'm sure I'll have more to say after I read it.

The comment period ends August 4th, a full two weeks. An improvement over last year's 7 days.

Let the comments begin!

Friday, July 21, 2006

VPNs clarified

The latest News Brief from the SLD had some useful info about VPNs: a point-to-point VPN is apparently eligible as a telecommunications service, but not as Internet access. I say "apparently" because the FCC could overrule the SLD or otherwise muddy the water.

My reading was that VPNs were telecommunications, but were "IP-enabled telecommunications," which means they wouldn't be eligible. Of course, now that the FCC has VoIP providers paying into the Universal Service Fund, perhaps the ban on IP-enabled telecommunications will be lifted. If so, I'd look for a gold rush into the education market by the VoIP carriers, which means a slew of responses to all 470s which list telecommunications services.

Where is that Eligible Services List, anyway? By my calculations, it should have been released to the public last month, so unless things get compressed elsewhere, I'd look for the FCC to again waive the 60-day period between ESL approval and the opening of the application window, and the application window to again be shorter than the traditional 80 days.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Remand, waiver, waiver, remand

Is the FCC ever going to deny an appeal again? Yesterday the FCC gave out two more applicant-friendly decisions.

In the first, an applicant didn't get around to sending the information it had promised to the SLD, but the FCC waived its rules and gave them another 15 days. One day soon, we'll see an appeal from an applicant who misses the deadline on one of these 15-day extensions. What will the FCC do then?

The second appeal was the Henkel Order. Seems some funding was approved for the Little Rock school district to get a video distribution system. Then when the vendor sent in an invoice, the SLD took another look at the system and contradicted its own funding approval, and would not pay for a few components of the system. I can't say I like this SLD practice of using the invoice process to double-check their earlier decisions. From the applicant and service provider perspective, it feels like the SLD is going back on its commitment and taking money away from them. It's not really, of course; the SLD is just adjusting its decision based on new information and withholding funding which would likely be COMADed anyway. But there must be a better way. Like having the FCC approve funding commitments, and have them iron-clad, so if an applicant honestly supplies all the requested information, if a mistake is made, the applicant and service provider don't have to pay for it.

Anyway, back to the Henkel Order. I found three things in the order interesting. First, the FCC gave some information on the eligibility of components of video distribution systems, some of which could be extrapolated to training and end-user components for any internal connections system. No earth-shattering revelations, though.

The second thing I found interesting was that the FCC treated the Eligible Services List for 2003-2004 (the funding year in this case) as if it were part of the program rules, quoting from it as the basis for determining eligibility. Until the Third Report and Order, which came into effect starting with the 05-06 ESL, the ESL was a list compiled by the SLD based on what had been approved and denied in the past. It was a good guideline, but I always treated it as an advisory document. Not until the Third Report and Order did the FCC make it a "safe haven" that applicants could count on to be correct.

It was nice to see the FCC treat an older ESL as authoritative. It's comforting to think that applicants can file appeals based on an old ESL, and the FCC will give it some weight.

Not that applicants need to supply much of a basis for an appeal any more; just ask nicely and the FCC will remand your application. Of course, the SLD then gets the unpleasant job of saying no another time if, like in the Henkel case, the application included end-user applications, which the FCC all but said were ineligible. But the case was remanded to the SLD to do the dirty work of denying that funding.

The third interesting thing is paragraph 12, which seems to say that training of end users is eligible as long as it happens near the time of installation and doesn't include programs of instruction or professional development. This is a reversal: in the past, end-user training was not eligible, only training for systems administrators. In the case of a new phone system, for example, you could get funding for training to teach a couple of people how to add extensions, clear voicemail boxes, etc., but you couldn't train end users how to transfer a call or check their voicemail. This decision seems to make that end-user training OK.

I'm all for training, but it creates an interesting situation. The cost of the end-user software of the video distribution system in this case is apparently not eligible, but training people to use that software is eligible.

Once again, I'm glad I don't work at the SLD.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Appeal flood rising

Well, as I have been saying, the FCC's recent spate of rule waivers has produced a bumper crop of "me-too" appeals.

Sometimes I just get the urge to read what sort of appeals have been filed. I can't figure out whether I do it out of empathy, schadenfreude, or a search for new appeal ideas.

Anyway, there is a definite uptick in appeals, and two really caught my eye.

One said, basically, that a few months ago when we got denied for missing a deadline, we didn't bother appealing, since the FCC never granted deadline waivers, but now that you've reversed course, we're appealing and we also have to request a waiver for not appealing months back when we got denied.

The second one was for a denial a few years back for a missed deadline. The denial was appealed to the FCC years ago, and back then the FCC stuck to the line: "We're sorry that your tech coordinator was sick/B.A. was fired/dog ate it, but a deadline is a deadline." Now the applicant has come back and said, hey, since everyone and their sister is getting a deadline waiver, will you reconsider your old decision?

I can't wait to see how these turn out. And I'm wondering whether it's worth it to dust off some old appeals....

Caveat applicant

Recently a client was caught in the mass COMADing of all FRNs for a Web hosting product called TeacherWeb. I don't see anything about TeacherWeb that doesn't meet the definition of Web hosting in the Eligible Services List, but I've never used the product, and the definition of Web hosting is vague (as I have pointed out during ESL comment periods).

This blog entry is complaining about a general practice in the E-Rate program. If a vendor assures an applicant that a service is eligible, and the SLD agrees it is eligible and approves the funding, if the SLD later changes its mind, the applicant has to pay. Granted, the applicant is really just returning funding improperly received, but it sets up a situation which promotes abuse. Several vendors have deceived the applicant and the SLD by mischaracterizing their product to squeeze it into eligibility. If they can squeeze it past PIA, it doesn't matter to them if the product is later found ineligible, because they've made the sale. The applicant, which relied on the expertise of the vendor and the SLD, is left holding the bag.

A couple of years back at a "train-the-trainer" session, when we were talking about the Eligible Products Database, I asked this question: If a service provider states that it's product is eligible and submits it for the database, and the SLD reviews it and posts it on their Web site, and it's later determined that the product is not eligible, who will pay? The answer: the applicant.

Applicants have no way of knowing whether a product is eligible. The FCC approving the ESL every year is a start. How about the FCC approving the Eligible Products Database?

Of course, I shouldn't be complaining. The complexity, changes and uncertainty in eligibility are a big factor in the growing demand for my services.

"Two-signature/two-date" won't die

I guess I jumped to conclusions in my June 14th post, saying that with the Richmond County decision, the FCC had killed the SLD rule that all contracts must be signed by both parties and dated by both parties. The SLD is apparently still operating under the belief that the FCC requires two dates.

Why did I think the rule was dead? Because the FCC said: "Based on the evidencesubmitted upon appeal, we find that Richmond County had legally binding contracts with Time Warner Cable and eChalk, LLC in place when submitting its FCC Form 471s. In both cases, Richmond County produced contracts that were signed and dated before the certification date of its FCC Form 471s." (paragraph 6)

The eChalk contract had two signatures, but only one date (as is frequently the case, and as is allowed under contract law). In its decision, the FCC did not say that the eChalk contract was defective, but that it was waiving its requirement for two dates. The FCC said the contract was legally binding. Nowhere in the decision does the FCC say, "All contracts with one signature are valid," but it does say this contract with one date is valid. And since the FCC has never said that a contract with only one date is invalid, I inferred that the FCC does not require two dates.

It seems to me that my reason for inferring that the FCC does not require two dates is much better than the SLD reason for inferring that the FCC does require two dates (based on a mention of "signed and dated by both parties" in a list of documentation required for audits).

I also have the impression that the SLD is viewing the Richmond County order as strictly a waiver, but it looks to me like the FCC granted the appeal for the Time Warner and eChalk contracts, and only waived its rules for the Novell contract.

I'm not dissing the SLD, though: I'd rather see applicants get denied and appeal to the FCC and get funded then have them get funded, then later COMADed.

There is hope: apparently there is a pile of "two-signature/two-date" appeals that the FCC is looking at en masse. Perhaps when that decision comes out, it will explicitly state that the validity of a contract is determined by state law, not FCC order.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Clerical and ministerial"

So the SLD has come out with it list of clerical and ministerial errors required by the Bishop Perry Order. Because I never make errors, it doesn't apply to me, so I didn't read it too closely. The only changes that jumped out at me:
  1. Now when you get the 471 RAL, you'll only have 15 days to make corrections; you used to have 3 weeks.
  2. You can now make corrections to Block 4 (discount calculation) or Block 5 (description of services) that will increase the amount of funding requested; it used to be you could make changes only if they kept the funding the same.

If you file the 471 on paper close to the deadline, the option to correct errors that used to be called Minimum Processing Standards is wonderful, but no one should be filing on paper.

The ability to certify after the deadline is nice for people who forget, but I find myself certifying everything online, so again it doesn't help me.

No word from the SLD yet on the "expanded outreach" requirement of the order. Here are some suggestions I'll make if anyone asks me:

  1. For each billed entity that files a 470, check to see if the 470 includes Telecommunication Services and Internet access. If not, send them a note. If the 470 were better (with standardized services choices instead of text boxes), the SLD would be able to ensure that basic phone service and ISP charges are on there. But don't get me started on the inadequacies of Block 2 of the 470.
  2. At 45 days before the end of the filing window, warn each billed entity that hasn't filed a 470 that time is running out. Of course, this will be difficult since the SLD database isn't clear on the difference between billed entities and locations.
  3. For each billed entity that files a 470, send a warning when the 471 deadline is approaching if they haven't filed 471s covering the categories requested on the 470.
  4. Warn applicants when the 486 deadline is approaching (I think we will see this requirement in an FCC order soon, since it was in the Bishop Perry order by mistake, before being struck by an Erratum notice).
  5. Six months into the year, check to see if applicants are billing on all their FRNs, and if not, send a reminder.
  6. 60 days after the end of the funding year, check to see if applicants are billing on all their FRNs, and if not, send a warning about the approaching deadline.
  7. Send quarterly (or at least annual) funding reports to all billed entities. The report should summarize funding for the last 3 years (for a quarterly report) or since the beginning of the program (for an annual report). If a billed entity didn't get funding in one of those years, make sure to show those zeros.
  8. Do more trainings. What is planned now, 6 trainings, 200 people each? Not enough. Maybe if all the trainings were Webcast.... Record the Q&A sessions from all the trainings, and make the recordings available on the Web.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Six months?

In the latest debarment proceedings, Inter-Tel and NEC were debarred for 6 months. That seems short to me. These were not cases of people pushing the envelope on eligible services or buying equipment only to realize later they couldn't use it. These were people who set out to steal from the program. I suppose the individuals involved are long gone, but I'd still like to see the corporation held responsible for the way in which its employees drive money into their coffers. In the end, it's another argument for simplifying the rules: I feel bad for the employees' supervisors, because they would have to slog through pages and pages of rules to figure out that these deals smelled funny.

I didn't pore over either decision, so I'm shooting from the hip here, but it looks to me like Inter-Tel had been "suspended" for 18 months, and is now "debarred" for another 6 months. Doesn't it seem like a "debarment" should be longer than a "suspension"? NEC, meanwhile, appealed it's suspension, and so seems not to have been under suspension. Indeed, there continue to be FRNs listing NEC, but it looks like only a handful in recent years. The FCC again provides incentive to appeal: even if you know you're going to lose, filing an appeal buys you time. Lots of time.