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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Toiling in Obscurity

The draft of the new Eligible Services List is out!  Let's see what's changed.

Everything.  It's nothing like the old ESL.  It's more like a summary of the ESL.  Oh dear, is this another case where the FCC claims to be "simplifying" the rules, but is in fact obscuring them?  Let me meander through before I answer that.

There's a 7-page intro to the 5-page ESL.  That doesn't bode well.  All the information we need should be in the ESL, not in some press release that most applicants will never see.

"Streamlining the list of supported services" is delightfully orwellian.  It makes it sound like they're simplifying the program, when in fact they are cutting everyone's funding.  Later they do cop to eliminating "outdated, legacy, and other services that do not provide broadband," but even that's spun pretty hard; they could have eliminated the words "outdated, legacy and other" from that sentence.  Outdatitude and legacity have nothing to do with it: they're eliminated all services that do not provide broadband.  Direct inward dialing is not outdated.  Text messaging is not a legacy service.  The E-Rate is now only funding broadband.

Looks like they kept maintenance.  Damn.  That should have been the first thing to go.

Category 2 is only for LAN/WLAN components.  Fine; servers were a cost-allocation nightmare, and I'm sure phone systems were a thorn in the side of the telecom carriers.  Wait, gateways and antennas are gone?  While I can't think of anyone selling a separate device called a "gateway" any more, the functionality (conversion of one protocol and/or physical medium to another in order to provide continuity of data flow) is certainly eligible.  But without antennas, there is no Wi-Fi.  Granted, many access points have bundled antennas, but not all: here's an example of some antennas that had better be eligible if applicants want to use the Cisco Aironet 1260 Series, 1600e Series, 2600e, 3500e Series, 3600e Series, or 1550 Series, since "These access points require the use of external antennas to make them fully functioning units."

It's good that installation can be purchased separately from equipment.  Wait, did I just fully support a change?  Rats!

They merged digital transmission and Internet access.  Good!  Oh, wait: "Applicants are still required to identify the category one service type on the FCC Form 471."  So with no guidance from the ESL, applicants have to figure out which of their services are telecom and which are Internet.  A great example of thinking that a change simplifies the program, when in fact it merely obscures the complexity of the program.

And here's another example.  The FCC has removed the "helpful" list of ineligible services because the list doesn't look "simple."  "Also, rather than examining long lists of ineligible services, it will be more efficient for applicants to assume that any service or component not listed in the ESL is ineligible for E-rate support." If a list of ineligible services is inefficient, why is it efficient to provide a mashup of some of the eligible data transport protocols, devices, signaling, handoffs and physical media?   Let's see how I can match up my Comcast Business Class bill with the ESL.  I guess "Internet service" on my bill is the same as "Internet access" on the ESL, but there's no mention on my bill of any of the protocols or physical media on the ESL.  Is my Internet service eligible?  Oh wait, over here under "Additional Digital Voice Services" there is a $5 charge for "Cable Modem Lease."  Since "Cable modem" is on the list, I guess that's eligible, but does that mean the whole service is eligible?  And I have my computer connected to the service by an Ethernet cable; does that make the service eligible?

Wait, "any service or component not listed in the ESL is ineligible for E-rate support"?  Does that mean because the FCC didn't list MPLS, it isn't eligible?  Or is it eligible if it has an Ethernet handoff?  What about free-space optical?  Does that come under wireless?

"The proposed ESL removes descriptions of E-rate program requirements that may be related to eligibility but do not directly name or describe the services that are eligible, and descriptions that provide extra information pertaining to certain services."  More simplification by obfuscation.  Yeah, all those rules were overwhelming and confusing.  But removing them doesn't make them less overwhelming and confusing.  It just means that in addition to being overwhelming and confusing, they're also hard to find.

"The proposed ESL also removes the 'Special Eligibility Conditions' section of the ESL because the requirements therein are already explained in the Commission’s rules or in Commission or Bureau orders and USAC provides information about these requirements on its website."  I'm having trouble expressing my opinion without vulgarity.  Last time I looked, there were 781 pages on the USAC Web site and 200 FCC orders, and that was 2008.  And don't forget the rules to be found in USAC PowerPoint slides.  It is incredibly irresponsible to believe that just because a rule exists somewhere, applicants will be able to find it.

Moving the glossary out of the ESL again obscures rather than simplifies.  Only people who worked as WAN engineers in the 1990s can be expected to know that Switched Multimegabit Data Service refers to a particular protocol, not just a concept (MPLS and Frame Relay, for example, are both switched, multimegabit data services, but neither is SMDS).  And even those aging engineers might not recognize "Switched Multimedia Data Service," since they always just called it SMDS.

OK, on to the list.

The DTS/Internet list is, as I mentioned, a strange mix of protocols, handoffs, physical media, etc.
  • ATM, frame relay and Broadband over Power Lines could probably all come off the list. Back in FY 2011, they had a combined total of 220 FRNs for $5.3 million.  Since then, those numbers have certainly gone down.  And while ATM can top 100 Mbps, I don't think you can get there with the other two, so they don't serve the goal of the program.
  • "Integrated Services Digital Network"?  Really?  In my experience, ISDN is like ISTE or AFS: at some point in the past, the letters stood for something, but not any more.  Also, ISDN comes in two flavors: BRI and PRI.  PRI is only used for voice, and BRI is 0.128 Mbps, so it's not broadband.
  • You want to get rid of an outdated service?  Take "Switched Multimegabit Data Service" off the list.  So 1990s.
  • You know T-1 and DS-1 circuits are 1.5 Mbps, right?  They do not provide "broadband" unless bonded.  And there is no way you can use them to get to 100 Mbps, which is the purpose of this program now, right?  
  • Fractional T-1 circuits are not broadband.  They do not get us closer to ubiquitous 100 Mbps.
  • Telephone dial-up?  This service is more outdated and legacy than any of the services they tossed, and it's not broadband. While I would love to see someone try to bond 1800 dial-up connections to create a 100 Mbps connection, it's hard to see how paying for 1800 POTS lines is cost-effective.  Also, putting "telephone" in there is going to make applicants stretch to fit POTS lines.
  • Say, when my fax machines send a fax, they are using a POTS line the same way a dial-up modem uses it, so can I keep my fax lines eligible?
  • Hey!  The wireless Internet access entry includes info about eligibility limitations.  I thought lists of that kind of information were inefficient, and should be hidden in the name of simplicity.  
  • Cost-allocating cell phone use made the IRS throw up their hands.  Up until now, I've considered it hyperbole when people said that PIA was worse than an IRS audit, but now the FCC really is going for nitpicking preeminence.
  • Where is MPLS? FSO? Hot air balloons?
Voice services
  • "Circuit capacity dedicated to providing voice service" leads to cost allocation hell.  I have to figure out what portion of my broadband connection is used for voice?  I've advocated tossing voice, including VoIP, but this goes too far.  Taking the broader view, why is it that the E-Rate will pay for broadband to allow students to watch Nyan Cat videos, but not to dial 911?  OK, it wouldn't be technology-neutral to fund the last mile for VoIP but not analog, but since even CLECs turn their noses up at POTS lines these days, no one cares about being fair to analog voice.  "Circuits dedicated to providing voice service" would be an OK way to toss PRIs and T-1 lines that VoIP providers install.
  • "Excluding ... text messaging."  Why?  The savings from removing the charges is tiny compared to applicants' administrative cost to remove those charges and USAC's administrative cost to verify the removal.
  • ISDN should be on this list.  I would also clearly state "PRI" here.
C1 limitations
  • If an IRU is considered a dark fiber lease, what kind of upfront charges could there be?  It can't be for build-out, right?  Because construction costs are not allowed on dark fiber leases.  What else could large upfront charges be for?
  • An IRU is not a purchase agreement.  You can add a buyout clause to a contract that contains an IRU, but an IRU is by definition not a purchase.  Think about it: why would I need to pay for a Right to Use (regardless of degree of defatigability) if I own the fiber?
  • You know what we should do for fiber instead of getting into the weeds on which pieces of fiber are eligible and which aren't depending on whether its lit, dark or IRU?  Say this: "Any applicant seeking a dark fiber lease must also request and consider lit fiber proposals."  Because, really, if it's cheaper to build a new dark fiber WAN than to lease a lit one, shouldn't we fund self-provisioning of dark fiber?  Oh wait, then we'd be pulling dark fiber all over Alaska.  That needs more thinking.
  • The Internet Access portion has some more ineligible components listed.  I guess having a full list of ineligibles is inefficient, but having several partial lists is efficient.
  • Firewall service is only eligible if it meets the criteria for Ancillary Use.  We have a term for services that are only allowed if they're ancillary; we call those services "ineligible."  Firewall service is an ineligible service.  Add firewall, DNS and DHCP to that (inefficient) list of ineligible items, and then let them come in if ancillary.
  • Managed internal broadband: So if a cell phone provider sets up a microcell in a school building, is that ineligible?  Where is the line between C1 wireless broadband and and C2 wireless broadband?
Category Two
  • If "equipment ... necessary to bring broadband into ... schools and libraries" is eligible, why isn't modulating equipment for dark fiber WANs eligible?
  • Client Access Licenses are not software.  In the case of LANs, CALs are generally just a way of throttling how many devices can connect, and don't involve any software.
  • If voice traffic goes through my router or switch or access point or firewall, do I have to cost allocate?  If I don't have voice on my data network, but later move to VoIP and my voice starts going through them, do I have to retroactively cost-allocate?
Managed Internet Broadband Services:
  • Clearly, the Commission liked the idea of Wi-Fi as a Service (WaaS).  And it's not a bad option for applicants.  But I wouldn't sign more than a 2-year contract, since we only have 2 years of C2 funding.
  • Interesting that an applicant can get funding for a service provider to monitor its LAN if it's "Managed Internal Broadband," but if exactly the same service is called "Basic Maintenance," it's not eligible for funding.  With the managed service, can get back to paying service providers for maintenance whether they do any maintenance or not.  "Managed Internet Broadband Services" (MIBS) will completely replace "Basic maintenance" (BMIC).
  • Generally, WaaS contracts include hardware replacement coverage.  The BMIC section still excludes "unbundled warranties."  That used to mean hardware replacement support contracts, but maybe that's changed; we'll have to search the USAC website for the meaning of "unbundled warranties," and hope that the FCC agrees with whatever we find there.  Another advantage of MIBS over BMIC.
  • Why aren't universal service administration fees eligible, anyway?  It's not a service that you can opt out of.  I think the separate charge is an unsavory practice, but rather than punish the victims of the fee, the Commission should contact whichever branch of government is in charge of regulating what can go on a phone bill. (Hint: they'll be able to use 4-digit dialing.)
Have the eligibility rules gotten simpler?  No. The removal of everything but LAN electronics simplified C2 rules a little, but this "Managed Internet Broadband Service" is a complexity explosion.  The C1 rules are more complicated because of the addition of a third category service: applicants now have to separate out Voice from the old Telecom Services and Internet Access categories.  The eligibility rules are more complicated.

As I feared, the brevity of the new ESL is just the Commission trying to hide the complexity of this program.  If they want to release this 5-page thing as an ESL Summary, fine.  But don't try to "simplify" the rules by burying them in some hidden corner of the USAC site, where the FCC can consider them rules when it suits them, or say that they're not rules if it's inconvenient.

The ESL should be at least 100 pages long.  Because that's how complex the rules are.

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