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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Commander Data

Now here's news that of interest to very few people: the FCC has released some E-Rate data in delimited text files.  You can find the data here. (In the ridiculously cluttered interface on that page, hunt for a button labeled "Zip" with a raining-arrow icon, and click on that to download a ZIP file with all the files in it.)

There are 2 data files:
  1. OPENDATA_FY2010, which is mostly information available through the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT).
  2. FY2010_CommittedFRNs_Block4_Data, which has Block 4 data.
I was pretty excited to see the files, but the result is not as exciting as I'd hoped.

The info I can see that's in OPENDATA that was not already available in the DRT are a field showing if the FRN is under appeal, the date the 471 was cancelled (empty for almost all FRNs), the number of students or library patrons (which I assume is coming from Block 2), and some Rural/Urban info, which I think only flows through from Block 4 in cases where an FRN serves a single location.  All pretty useless.

I've been asking to be able to download Block 4 data since 2006, so that data file would be exciting, except I've already managed to collect this info by other means.  If the data were up to date, and included all funding years, then it would be useful, since it would be easier to collect than the way I'm doing it now, but as it is, I have no use for the file.

I suppose there are very few people who want any of this information and haven't already figured out how to collect it.  And no one will have all that much use for a single funding year of data.

But the FCC made it clear that they intend to expand the availability of data, so this could be the start of something great.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch

USAC is calling another audit down on their own heads.  Funds for Learning spotted a USAC RFP for a "risk assessment" audit.  Of course I'm ill-equipped to perform the audit, but I'm happy to supply some of the requested assessments for free.  The list of assessments starts on page 3, and there are 16.  I'll only cherry-pick ones that I can answer without doing any actual work.
(3) Consider the effectiveness of USAC’s E-rate Program procedures in detecting the most significant problems identified in recent E-rate audits....
OK, see now there's a problem right there.  The most significant problems are not identified in audits.  The most significant problems are the ones that put people in jail.  Those are the risks the auditor should be focused on.  The fact that an applicant couldn't find a document proving that the Internet Safety Policy was approved at a public meeting 10 years ago is just stupid compared to a service provider and an applicant employee combining to steal $5 million from the program.
(4) Evaluate GAO’s statement that “[t]he E-rate program’s internal control structure is a product of accretion...."
After careful evaluation, I have reached the following conclusion:  No duh.
(6) Provide specific recommendations on how the application review process might be streamlined....
Here are some recommendations off the top of my head:
  1. If you're a public school or library, and the FRN is less than $3,000, PIA review is: nothing.  Approved.  Boom, there goes PIA for half of the FRNs.
  2. Cost-effectiveness reviews are just pointless harassment.  Toss them.
  3. Toss the 470 and the whole competitive-bidding charade.  It hampers competition and drives up prices.
  4. Don't require contracts before the 471 is filed.  It hampers competition and drives up prices.  And oh yeah, it's illegal.
  5. Publish the secret 700-page tome of PIA procedures.  Let everyone know what the rules are, and we'll all follow them.
  6. If you want third-party verification of NSLP numbers, get them from a third party.  Just sayin'.
  7. Every piece of information required to approve funding should be a part of the Form 471.  No attachments, clarifications, etc.  PIA gets the 471, and based on the information collected there, makes a decision.  Yeah, the 471 would have to be ginormous to provide all the information that PIA wants under current procedures, but that's kind of the point.  Force the ridiculous complexity of this program out into the open.  Imagine if the IRS looked over your tax return and said, "Hey, I see you claimed travel to your doctor as a deduction.  Could you send us a list of those trips and any other stops you might have made on the way?"  That's what audits are for.
  8. Stop sending out those useless, yet frightening Notification of Form 470 Posted but No Associated Form 471 letters.
  9. If you have a beef with a service provider, audit them.  Don't force every applicant to back up every invoice with a slew of bills and/or a service certification month after month.
  10. PIA should be required to tell applicants if they're about to lose funding.
(8) Evaluate whether ... audits of service providers, rather than just applicants, should be conducted.
And the answer is: Yup.  Name one case of waste, fraud or abuse that took place without the complicity of some service provider.
(13) ... evaluate whether the computer systems USAC has adopted for inputting and processing applications and invoices is both reliable and sufficiently flexible to incorporate E-rate Program changes promptly and efficiently.
Was it 2009 when Mel said that the entire system was going to be overhauled, which would allow for all sorts of improvements?  Since then, it's been patch, patch, patch.  How many trees died this month to send out duplicate 486 notices?  And we just got a Receipt Notification Letter for a 470 posted 63 days ago.

I'm ever the optimist (stop snickering), so I'm hoping that this audit will provide the grounds for real improvement.  But since it's a one-year contract, I won't hold my breath.

On a tangent completely unrelated to E-Rate, who decided to name a candy bar "Snickers"?  I mean, naming your confection after a snide laugh?  OK, Nabisco had already released "Chuckles," but "Giggles" or even "Chortles" or "Titters" would have been better than "Snickers."

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

My minimis is bigger than yours

Now this is a step in the right direction.  Actually, it's a giant, jet-assisted leap in the right direction.  Or maybe it's a typo.

Every 6 months, USAC releases a report on audits of the E-Rate program.  If I have a little spare time, I read the whole report, but today I just skipped straight to spreadsheet attached to the report, so I could start grinding my teeth right away.  I've whined again and again about the niggling little amounts that USAC goes out and collects from applicants.  USAC is not supposed to collect if the administrative cost is greater than the amount to be recovered (per the Fifth Report and Order).  Now I have no doubt that the good people at USAC are underpaid, but there is no way that a collection costs less than $276, which is the smallest amount I can see on this report that USAC is trying to collect.

But what's this under 2005?  It looks like 9 applicants were given de minimis exemptions totalling $164,639.  So that means that at least one of those applicants is getting a de minimis exemption for an amount greater than $18,293.  For 2006, the de minimis amount must be at least $2,883 for some lucky applicant.  (For the rest of the years, the de minimis cutoff could be less than $300.  Because USAC only publishes totals for each funding year, there's no way to say what the actual de minimis amount is, only the lowest amount it could be.)

But wait, there is some other applicant in the 2005 column in the early stages of collection for $7,465, and 2006 has the $276 collection I whined about earlier.  That means it is mathematically impossible for the same de minimis standard to have been applied to all applicants in those funding years.

Why am I reading tea leaves on this?  Why isn't the de minimis amount published?  Like maybe in the semi-annual report.  And while they're at it, they could explain where in the recovery process de minimis determinations are made.

But I guess besides me, interest from the public is de minimis.

Your grandfather's dark fiber

Hmm, an appeal decision released while E-mpa® and SECA were holding meetings. Channeling my inner conspiracy theorist, I thought maybe the FCC was trying to slide one by while no one was looking.

But no, it's a pretty boring decision.  Actually, I think the ruling adds some clarity on the eligibility of dark fiber.  In 2002.  The order is clear that they are talking about the 2002 rules, so we can't try to extrapolate to today's dark fiber.

It does perpetuate a part of the "Tennessee test" that only a lawyer could say with a straight face: exclusive use .  Boise ISD built a dark fiber WAN connecting their buildings.  USAC said it wasn't eligible because they had exclusive use of the fiber.  The FCC said, "Boise ISD and IDACOMM [the service provider] did not have an exclusivity arrangement limiting the use of the IDACOMM network to Boise ISD."  Now in this case, IDACOMM probably did put dozens of pairs up on the poles and maybe resold them to others, but the actual pair that Boise leased?  The FCC bought the argument that "IDACOMM retains the right to provision new circuits for additional clients on the fiber currently utilized by Boise ISD."  As a practical matter, to whom are they going to sell a circuit that terminates in a school building?  And how are they going to get someone else's light (and therefore circuit) onto that pair?  The dark fiber must be connected to district modulating electronics (otherwise it's lit fiber, which has regulatory consequences beyond the E-Rate), so how does the service provider put someone else's traffic on that pair?

I find the whole "exclusive use" test to be weird, but it's even weirder to apply it to a dark fiber WAN, which does not have a significant amount of equipment on the client's premises.

But it doesn't matter anyway, since the eligibility of dark fiber has changed drastically since 2002.  Twice.