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Monday, July 22, 2013

Three NPRMs in one

We still don't have the NPRM, but the FCC's fact sheet about it is better than me commenting based on my teleconference notes, so let's take a stroll through it.

The first thing I notice: there is nothing about increasing the size of the fund.  I think everybody was expecting to see something about how we need more money.  But I guess the FCC can jack up the contribution factor without public comment.

The document is broken down into three goals: broadband capacity, cost-effective purchasing and streamlined administration.  I don't see why the 3 should be rolled into one NPRM, but fine.  The program hasn't been roiled since the Sixth Report and Order, so it's high time the FCC confused applicants again.

I know you're dying to hear my opinion, so I'll go point by point.

Broadband capacity
This is the only one mandated by President Obama, and the only one that is an actual initiative.  There are five suggestions listed here:

  1. Simplifying fiber deployments.  Cool.  Does this mean getting rid of the weird rules that say you can get funding for fiber on the pole, and fiber on school property, but the cost to pull fiber from the pole to school property is only eligible for lit fiber, not dark fiber?  Also, the administration seems to be thinking that ConnectED can be paid for with a temporary funding surge.  If so, they should allow applicants to pay installation costs without amortizing.  And in the interest of enhancing competition, allow applicants to consider building out dark fiber (currently, you can pay to build out lit fiber, but the dark fiber already has to be lying there).
  2. Prioritizing fiber is OK, but are they saying that for remote areas, more cost-effective microwave circuits are to be deprecated?  I don't know of anywhere that broadband over power lines is offered, but should we really being prioritizing one transport medium?
  3. Phasing out support for paging and directory assistance.  Wait, we're not talking about phasing out voice entirely?  Commissioner Pai specifically calls for eliminating voice, and Commissioner Rosenworcel calls for phasing down $600 million in "outdated services," which must mean voice.  If we're really just talking pagers and 411, don't bother; schools are already phasing out pagers, and directory assistance is so tiny that phasing it out is not worth the cost of figuring out the cost allocation.  I've already said that voice and video should get the heave-ho.
  4. Ensuring Wi-Fi networks for all schools and libraries.  That's OK with me, but are we saying that schools that prefer gigabit to each device are wrong?  1 Gbps requires cabling.  (Yeah, yeah, 802.11ac will get you 1.3 Gbps, but unless the architecture is dramatically different that the rest of 802.11, we're talking well under a gig in actual throughput, and that's going to be shared among all the devices hitting that access points; put 20 chromebooks in a classroom, and they're each getting maybe 40 Mbps.  And all the chromebooks and iPads already out there don't have 802.11ac capability, and so access points are going to have to step down to pokey old 802.11n.)
  5. Per-student funding.  What is this doing under broadband capability?  How is funding allocation tied to bandwidth?  Anyway, I've already given my opinion on per-student funding.
Cost-effective purchasing
The FCC had to rush out this NPRM on ConnectED, so why muddle it up with this dreck?  Again, five proposals:
  1. Increase consortium purchasing.  Don't bother.  Consortia are a mess, and I don't see a way to clean them up under E-Rate rules.  I'm in favor of simplifying consortium rules, but I don't see a way to do it without scrapping the current competitive bidding rules (which would be a good idea).  One tip to encourage consortia, don't limit conortia's ability to negotiate telecom rates.  And every attempt by the FCC to improve the purchasing process just makes things worse.
  2. More bulk buying and price transparency.  How are they going to encourage bulk buying?  I'm in favor of purchasing cooperatives, but coops are more about administrative convenience than cost-effectiveness.  And, of course, every attempt by the FCC to improve the purchasing process just makes things worse.  What is "price transparency"?  Is that where the service provider says, "Here is the price I'm offering you, and here is my Lowest Corresponding Price"?  That would be good.
  3. Increased transparency on spending.  Yes!  Free the Item 21 Attachments!
  4. Improve competitive bidding.  Uh oh.  Every attempt by the FCC to improve the purchasing process just makes things worse.  The FCC could improve competitive bidding by getting their noses out of local purchasing decisions.
  5. "[A] pilot program to incentivize and test more cost-effective purchasing practices." Since the FCC doesn't seem to have realized that every attempt they make to improve the purchasing process just makes things worse, I am not sanguine about their ability to properly evaluate the outcomes of a pilot program.  If they want to pilot the FCC butting out of the purchasing process, I'd be for that, but otherwise, please stop having people who are not experts in purchasing technology in charge of making up rules for purchasing technology, or we'll end up with more crap like the 2-in-5 Rule, On-Premise Priority One Equipment, bundling rules, unbundled warranty rules, etc.
Streamlined administration
Again, nothing to do with ConnectED, but at least I kind of like these suggestions.  Did someone decide that each area had to have 5 suggestions?
  1. Speeding application review.  Great.  How about starting application review?  This year has been abysmally slow on applications going into review, except for slam-dunk apps, which sailed through with no visible review (which is good).  The typical funding request involves $3,000 being transferred from the feds to a local government body.  How much review do we really need?
  2. Streamline online application and require online application.  Don't require, just streamline.  If you build a good enough online app, no one will want to file on paper.  Oh, here's a suggestion: don't take the online BEAR offline just as BEAR season starts.
  3. Increase transparency of USAC process.  Oh, I'm all for that.  Start with the 700 pages of secret rules.  Follow up with a video showing us what a PIA reviewer does all day.  Give us access to the screens that PIA is looking at for our applications.
  4. Simplify the Eligible Services List; make disbursements more efficient.  Why are these in the same bullet point, much less the same sentence?  I'm all for a simpler ESL, but let's do it by simplifying eligibility rules, not obscuring eligibility rules.  All the rules concerning eligibility should be in the ESL, including rules on WANs and On-Premise Priority One Equipment and cost allocation and the whole mess.  If it's not in the ESL, it's not a rule.  Once it's a 200-page compendium, the impetus to simplify rules will be quite strong.  Removing a rule from the ESL is not simplifying; removing a rule from the program is simplifying.  By "more efficient ways to disburse E-rate funds," I hope they mean BEAR checks directly from USAC to applicants.  Everyone wants that, except USAC, who will be stuck sending out tens of thousands of checks instead of thousands of electronic payments.  Or maybe applicants could take electronic payments?
  5. Streamline appeals process.  That should be "accelerate processing of appeals."  I don't know what goes on inside the FCC when an appeal is filed, but I've always had the perception that it gets assigned to someone, and that person tries to find time to deal with it among a sea of other responsibilities.  I think the FCC should adopt my "appeals decided in 90 days, or your appeal is granted" plan.  Complex problems demand bold and irresponsible action!
Some other stuff that the FCC is thinking about, but didn't want to cram into one of the above categories.
  1. Does CIPA apply to devices not owned by the applicant which connect to the applicant network?  What about applicant devices connected to other networks?  Worthy questions which should be answered.  The answers could be concise and clear.  Unfortunately, the right answers are not consistent with the way the CIPA law was written.
  2. Adjusting to new NSLP rules.  The USDA created the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), which allows schools with at least 40% of kids "Identified" to agree to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, and not distribute NSLP vouchers for 4 years.  The problem is that the criteria for  "Identified Student" included non-income-based criteria.  I say allow schools to use either Identified Students or students who meet income eligibility standards.
  3. Additional measure to prevent WFA.  I'm all for preventing WFA.  Top on my list of preventative measures: lower the top discount rate to 65%.
  4. Wireless community hotspots.  99% of libraries already provide this.  That's enough.  And if a school wants to have outdoor Wi-Fi, there is no rule against it.  Let's not create a new rule to make eligible something that's already eligible.  If the FCC is talking about putting hotspots somewhere not on school property, I say, "Hell, no!"  What would stop towns from having municipal Wi-Fi funded by the E-Rate?  I think municipal Wi-Fi is wonderful, but it is well outside what E-Rate should fund.
I'm eager to see the actual NPRM, but I'm not holding my breath.

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