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Monday, January 23, 2017


Well that was quick: Commissioner Pai is now Chairman Pai.  It's not a surprise, and it is good to have the decision made.  But is it good for the E-Rate?

Let's look at the most important question first: does the new Chairman capitalize the "R" in "E-Rate"?  Yes!  But can he root out the Russian mole at the FCC that has been weakening our country's R?  Make the "R" in "E-Rate" great again!

What effect will Commissioner Pai have on the program?  At this point, it's mostly speculation, but I can't help myself.  It's hard to predict what the Chairman's priorities will be now that he controls the agenda, rather than just reacting to it.  Here are some thoughts based on his past statements.

Things I like:
  1. Big picture: the Chairman is not afraid to think outside the box and suggest big changes.  That's a little frightening, but I've been frustrated by recent reforms that just nibbled around the edges and tacked on a few new little facets.  He also seems to keep the needs of applicants foremost in his mind.
  2. Chairman Pai often deplored the partisanship and lack of collegiality in the FCC.  I have to agree.  Let's hope he can return the FCC to a less partisan body.
  3. He has said we should simplify the application process.  Yes!  Some of his proposals (while I didn't agree with all of them) could actually lower the workload on applicants.  I hope he really can simplify the process.
  4. As part of that simplification, the Chairman has suggested removing competitive bidding requirements from the E-Rate.  I'm all for that.
  5. The Chairman proposed a single discount rate for all applicants.  I don't actually like a single discount rate, but I do support simplification of the discount matrix.
  6. And that single discount rate would be 75%.  It's good that it's lower than 90%, which is too close to free, but I'd rather have the top discount rate be 65%, like it is over at the Rural Health Care program.
Things I don't like:
  1. Big picture: Chairman Pai has said, "E-Rate is a program worth fighting for," but has also said that he wants to reduce the size of the Universal Service Fund contribution factor, and seems willing to reduce the E-Rate program to do it.
  2. In the most recent statement I've found, the Chairman said, "We need to fire up the weed whacker...," but he seemed to be talking about Net Neutrality, not the E-Rate.  Still, I don't want anyone using a weed whacker near our little rose garden.
  3. The Chairman has suggested a per-student funding allocation, called "formulaic funding" in 2005 and "student-centric" funding when it was reheated in 2013.  Basically, take the current $150-in-5 budget for C2, and make it $32/student/year, including C1 and C2.   I'm not all that sanguine about per-student funding.
  4. The Chairman has said recently and repeatedly: "It is time to bring more openness and transparency to the FCC."  That's great, but it turns out what he meant is openness between commissioners, not transparency to program participants.  It appears that he means, at least in part, allowing Commissioners to meet in private.  That isn't good.
  5. Chairman Pai hates consultants, and has falsely implicated us in fraud perpetrated by service providers.
Other things:
  1. Chairman Pai sure sticks up for rural applicants.  When he talked about his budget concerns with modernization proposals, he was very concerned that rural schools were going to lose all their funding, when in fact, non-rural schools would lose funding first.  And his E-Rate 2.0 proposal included giving rural applicants twice as much funding per student as non-rural applicants.  I think it is true that rural areas are less likely to have the concentration of poverty necessary to reach a 90% discount, which meant the P2 gravy train didn't reach them, but I'm not so sure that rural applicants always need more money that non-rural applicants.
I don't think E-Rate will be at the top of his priority list, so the program should be stable for a year or two.  But then, watch out.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Spam, spam, info, spam

Bad news for people who are General Contacts for entities in EPC.  USAC has released a new Entity Download Tool that will let anyone (without needing EPC access) download their name and email address.  Account Administrator's names are also available, but not, apparently, their email addresses.

Browsing the NJ entities, most entities do not have an email address listed (most don't have a General Contact name, in which case sometimes the Account Administrator's email is sometimes listed).  I haven't figured out a pattern on which General Contacts get their email address exposed.  Still, there are thousands of school and library employees should brace for an increase in spam.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Don't ask, and definitely don't tell

Wow.  Just wow.

As I reported back in 2009, the FCC got an appeal from a district which had discovered that one of its employees and the president of a service provider had defrauded the E-Rate program of $5 million and alerted the police and USAC.  The actors were imprisoned and ordered to pay back $2.1 million.  Then USAC let the district and the service provider company know that they were liable for the other $2.9 million.  The district pointed out that they never got any of the equipment or the money, so USAC should just go after the service provider and the two individuals who ran the scheme.  Seems like a reasonable request, especially since it was the district that told USAC about the fraud.

Last week, the FCC reached a decision on the appeal, and it's a doozy.

They affirmed the USAC decision, and said that recovery should come from both parties.  Is it just me, or does that seem kind of unjust?  My favorite line: "Not recovering ... because other officials were unaware of his criminal conduct would discourage E-rate applicants from creating internal review systems necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse."  Think that over: this district is going to lose $2 million because it reported fraud to USAC.  To the extent that other E-Rate applicants are even aware of this decision, it provides a strong incentive not to report fraud.

And what does it mean that USAC will recover "jointly" from the district and the service provider?  It sounds like they'll go after them both until one of them pays up.  What do you think the odds are that the service provider company is still in existence?  It seems like the district is going to end up paying the whole $2.9 million.

But it gets worse.  The FCC took it one step further.  They noted that the perpetrators had not paid back most of the $2.1 million they were fined, and decided that the district should be on the hook for that, too.  Since the malefactors only coughed up $784,338 of the $5,050,431 that was stolen, if the service provider is no longer in business, it looks like the district is going to have to pay $4,266,093.  Over $4 million lost because they caught and reported an employee stealing.  That will certainly "discourage E-rate applicants from creating internal review systems necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse."

And the perpetrators?  The guys who pocketed $5 million and only had to pay back $784,338?  Their debarment from the E-Rate program expired back in September 2008.

Friday, January 06, 2017

When USAC closes a door...

Hey, isn't there supposed to be a window around here somewhere?  It's usually someplace close to this.

When will we know?  Well, last year they announced on January 25th that the window would open on February 3rd and close on April 29th.  (Of course, it didn't close until May 26th (July 21st for consortia), but that's another story....)

E-Rate Central has some interesting guesswork.  The bottom line: window opens in early March, closes in early May.  Could be.  They mention several steps that have to happen first, and give USAC a pretty tight timeline to get it done, so I wouldn't be surprised to see those dates slide.  Also, at the DC training this year, I heard that the target for window length is 75 days, so if it opens in early March, maybe it would close in late May.

In any case, I'm feeling pretty confident that once again, I will get my wish to have the window close in May.  Of course, when I made that wish, I should have realized that closing the window later wouldn't necessarily make the PIA process less onerous.  Instead, six months into the funding year, USAC has only committed $1.64 billion out of an estimated $3.6 billion in requests.  Even if there have been some denials, halfway through the funding year, half the funding requested is still waiting.  (And about $500 million of that $1.64 billion was just approved in December.)  True, over 80% of applications have been approved, but over half the dollar amount is just hanging there.  (Here's a nice Funds for Learning graph as of December 15th.)

"Be careful what you wish for" comes to mind.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Can't swallow SIP

Time for me to complain about the use of the English language again.  Today's complaint: the misleading jargon surrounding SIP.

SIP ("Session Initiation Protocol") is a protocol which can allow two devices to communicate, usually to set up a VoIP call.

Applying old-school telephony terminology to VoIP has created misunderstanding.  A “SIP trunk” is not actually a trunk, but it replaces trunks, so lazy telecom folks gave it that name.  SIP does not have “call paths,” but because the simultaneous-user limits behave like old call paths, people use that term.

SIP is not involved in the actual transport of voice or anything else.  It just sets up (and later tears down) the connection between two devices.  Once the connection is established, communication goes directly between the two phones using RTP, with no involvement from the provider’s SIP infrastructure until the call is terminated. (When you talk into your VoIP phone, your phone turns that sound into packets and sends them directly to the other phone.)

You can’t run data over a SIP trunk.  First of all, there’s no “trunk,” just a license to use a service provider’s SIP servers to set up and tear down calls.  Second, SIP cannot handle, say, an HTTP request, so you can’t browse the Web using SIP.  We don’t use SIP for anything but VoIP (and maybe some videoconferencing).

It’s like saying that you have an “HTTP trunk” that carries data and audio/video.  It’s a protocol, not a transport medium.  And yes, the use of HTTP does result in you getting to watch Nyan Cat videos, but HTTP’s involvement is to give your browser the info that it needs to get the video from a video server.

So I propose that we outlaw the use of terminology like "SIP trunk" or "SIP call path" in the E-Rate program.

Looking a little deeper, the distinction between “voice” and “data” is mighty fuzzy.  Your VoIP end-user device knows it’s a phone call, and maybe a gateway in your building knows, and your service provider’s SIP infrastructure is aware it’s a call when setting it up and tearing it down, but all the other devices involved (routers, switches, etc.) just see your phone call as a bunch of packets (maybe high-priority packets).

 I’m a visual guy, so I find looking at the OSI Model clears things up for me. 
Each layer translates the info into a format that the next layer can work with.  When an application wants to send info to another node, it works its way down the stack, through a variety of protocols which transform it until it reaches the Physical layer, which is a fiber or wire.  When that signal arrives at the remote node, it works its way back up the stack, being transformed back into something the application at the other end can use.
Some people seem to think that SIP operates at the bottom 4 layers, transporting data.  Nope.  It operates at the top layer.  By the time you get to layer 4, SIP traffic looks the same as all the other traffic riding your TCP/IP network.  At that point, it’s all data.  Saying that data runs over SIP is like saying that fiber runs over IP.  It’s the other way around: SIP runs over your data network and IP runs over fiber.

Your connection to your ISP operates at the Data Link Layer: a signal on a wire (or fiber).  So it seems seems kind of nonsensical to cost-allocate that connection based on whether some of those signals used to be voice (and will be again once they've been transformed by the layers at the other end).

Why does it matter?  Because the ESL says you have to apply the voice discount reduction to "circuit capacity dedicated to providing voice services" (which is language lifted from the E-Rate Modernization Order).  The mistaken belief that SIP is some kind of trunk leads people to believe that it is dedicated to voice and that you can determine the cost of that trunk and cost-allocate.  There is no "dedicated" capacity in a typical IP-over-Ethernet network.

And now a meta-rant:
Who the hell came up with "SIP"?  First off, in the name of a protocol, "IP" should mean "Internet Protocol"; everyone who sees "IP" in an acronym is going to assume it means IP.  And why use the word "Session"?  "Session" already has a meaning in networking (as you can see in the picture above).  How about we rename it "Multimedia Connection Establishment Protocol" or MCEP?  Not as catchy, but also not as confusing.

Kimmy Mentions Wheeler!

Hey, it's time again for a post about something that amuses me and is E-Rate-adjacent.

We're watching "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" on Netflix.  Last night, we reached the episode "Kimmy Sees a Sunset!" (episode 12 of season 2) and suddenly, they're talking about FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler!  It wasn't as good as John Oliver calling the Chairman a dingo, but we do get to hear David Cross say, "Tom Wheeler and I still use floaties!"

Why did this give me a little thrill?  It's not like I've met the Chairman or even follow him on Twitter.  But I am among the very few Americans who can name the FCC Chairman.  And I could pick him out of a lineup, even if the lineup included Michael Keaton and Rutger Hauer.  It's kind of like hearing your favorite obscure band mentioned on the radio.