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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Want to know the rules? Guess.

The most cynical statement in the new Eligible Services List?  "documents on USAC’s website are not incorporated by reference into the ESL and do not bind the Commission. Thus, they will not be used to determine whether a service or product is eligible. Applicants and service providers are free to refer to those documents, but just for informal guidance."

I shouldn't really complain, since they are just being explicit about something that's always been true: USAC's website is full of their best guesses as to what the rules are.  The FCC has chosen to be crystal clear: information on the USAC website are not rules.  USAC's decisions on eligibility are educated guesses.

And that's the real problem I have with the new ESL.  See, the ESL is binding.  It's a chunk of FCC-approved rules.  By shortening the ESL and moving information like the glossary to the USAC website, they have changed all those words from rule to guidance.  (Which the FCC can later treat as a rule if they want to, like they did with an old PowerPoint slide.)

So what is meant by, for example, "Interconnected voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)"?  No one knows.  There will be "guidance" on the USAC website, but the FCC can make up whatever definition it wants, at any point in the future.

Back at my first USAC training (back when it was a closed "train-the-trainer" affair), when USAC asked how the program could be improved, my first suggestion was "publish a rule book."  And SECA requested a Comprehensive Requirements Manual back in 2011.

Now we're moving in the opposite direction.  The FCC is taking the small part of eligibility rules that were written, and unwriting most of them.  I've said before that the ESL should be much bigger, including rules on on-premise priority one equipment, leased WANs, cost allocation, etc.  It would be an intimidating book, but at least we'd know what the rules are, instead of wandering in the fog.

So where are the rules?  Spread across FCC orders.  So you're thinking, "C'mon, Dan, don't be lazy.  Just read the orders.  I mean, how many can there be?"  To which I answer: "There are over 500."  My quick count found 558, but I think maybe I counted some things that weren't really orders.  On the other hand, there may be more secret appeal decisions out there, so maybe my count is low.

If we're all expected to know the content of 500 orders, could we at least have an index?

And don't think you can skim the orders: the good stuff is often in the footnotes.  For example, the unkillable "two-signature/two-date" rule was finally killed by a footnote.

And unfortunately, even if you read all 500 orders, there's a good chance that there is no rule to cover your eligibility question.  So you're back to guessing.

I feel like the ESL was like a little rock we could cling to in the swirling sea of unwritten E-Rate requirements, and now the FCC has dynamited that rock, leaving us almost nothing to cling to.

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