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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

CER secret police

Be warned, this is going to be a rant.

I've decided the Cost Effectiveness Review (CER) is the most heinous of all the audit/review/investigation procedures in the E-Rate program. Even worse than the "let's-use-the-invoice-approval-process-to-take-another-look-at-the-funding-commitment-decision-we-made-a-year-ago" review.

Why the worst? Well, let's see: 1) you're guilty until proven innocent, 2) you don't know the charges against you, and 3) in the end you won't know why you were denied. It's like something out of Kafka.

The first problem is one that is common to the entire E-Rate program, but is exacerbated by the complete secrecy of the CER. The burden of proof is always on the applicant. USAC doesn't have to prove that a request is ineligible, the applicant has to prove it is eligible. That's OK when the applicant knows the rules (or at least most of the rules).

But in this case, no one outside USAC/Solix knows any of the rules. We don't know whether reviewers are looking at the total cost, unit cost, cost/student, cost/classroom, ports/student, phones/student, phones/classroom or some combination of factors. How can I prove a request is "cost effective" if the definition of "cost effective" is completely secret?

If there are standards, no one in the applicant/service provider community knows what they are. Since the FCC has declined to set public standards, my guess is that there are no standards. Instead, I'll bet a little group (or one person?) in Solix (the subcontractor that USAC pays to process applications) looks at some requests and says, "No way! That's out of hand!" and starts a CER. So the only chance of beating a CER is to convince that secret little group of subcontractors that they were wrong, and it's not out of hand. Without speaking to that group, or getting more than oblique hints as to what they thought was out of hand.

Or, you can appeal to the FCC, which is what CER victims are doing.

I'm hoping that there are enough CER appeals in the hopper to make it worth the FCC's while to issue one of their blanket orders on CERs before September. My hope is that the FCC will continue their "second chance" philosophy and force USAC to tell applicants exactly what they have to do to make their request "cost effective" (cut the number of ports, buy a smaller phone system, bring the cost down to $110/student, whatever).

Because this CER nonsense has to stop.

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