Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

If not us, who? If not now, when?

OK, I admit, when I heard about Funds for Learning's proposal to expand the E-Rate to provide Internet access to students' homes, I thought, "Oh no, don't try to make the E-Rate do that."  I mean, it already feels like the E-Rate program is held together with duct tape and bailing wire, and now we're going to branch into a whole new realm?  But I listened to John Harrington's presentation about it, and one of his ideas really struck me:  if not through the E-Rate, then how?

There's no question in my mind that something needs to be done about digital equity.  Home Internet access is no longer the Homework Gap; it's the School Gap.  When my local district closed, my first thought was, "How are the low-income kids going to access school?"  The federal government needs to do something.  In the past, my attitude has been, "Let the Lifeline [née Low Income] program handle home Internet access."  But that was before schools closed.  Now, home Internet access is essential to education.  We're not talking about getting Internet to every home; we're talking about getting Internet to every student's home.  So it fits in the E-Rate program nicely.

So is E-Rate the right vehicle to deliver the funding?  Perhaps I would say E-Rate is the "least wrong" vehicle to deliver the funding.  I have pointed out the problems I see.  And I do see some risk that the sudden addition to the program is going to make things (like EPC and PIA) crumple.  But as Mr. Harrington pointed out, there is no better way to deliver the funding.  And it needs to be done.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

I didn't see this coming so quickly.  Just a day after SHLB requested it, the FCC has waived its gift rules.  Hoo boy!  Will this be the year when I can finally accept a bottle of scotch from each potential vendor, the way I hear they do over in the private sector?  [Not that I would ever do such a thing.  I couldn't take gifts from service providers while taking money from applicants; FCC rules aside, it wouldn't be right.  Also, I don't like scotch.]

But the FCC's not allowing it anyway: "We waive the E-Rate program gift rules  to enable service providers to offer, and E-Rate eligible schools and libraries to solicit or accept, broadband connections, devices networking equipment, or other things of value that could help students, teachers, and patrons affected by school and library closures during the coronavirus pandemic."  While I could argue that scotch fits into "other things of value" and that it would help teachers trying to figure out virtual classroom management on the fly, I wouldn't like my chances in a PQA.

But hey, at least we'll have common-sense rules through September 30, 2020.  Until then, applicants won't have to put a dollar figure on an item that's free and then add that hypothetical cost to the price of the bid when comparing prices.

Let's hope we see quick action on all the requests in SHLB's letter.  Commissioner Rosenworcel certainly favors more action.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A hotspot coming to you?

Some senators have asked the FCC "to temporarily allow schools to utilize E-Rate program funding to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or devices with Wi-Fi capability to students who lack internet access at home."

The senators point out that the E-Rate program is about $2 billion under cap, so why not spend it on hotspots?

I'm in favor, but I see four big problems:
  1. Agility.  I just don't see the FCC moving quickly enough to get this in place this week, which is when schools need it.
  2. Funding.  Yes, the E-Rate is $2 billion under cap.  But the FCC just set the contribution factor to meet existing demand.  A sudden increase in disbursements is going to require a sudden increase in the contribution factor. 
  3. Provisioning.  How quickly is a school district going to be able to go from zero to hotspot?  Even if the FCC waived the 470, just getting the hotspots delivered and configuring everything seems like a tall order.  And are service providers prepared to ship all those hotspots?
  4. Availability.  OK, you've configured the school's Chromebook to connect to the hotspot, and the student takes it home.  How does that hotspot get to the Internet?  A cell phone data plan?  Cost aside, not every home in the country has great cell phone service.
Still, it's worth trying.

Coming to a hotspot near you

As districts all over are going to virtual schooling, there is some good news from the FCC.  Chairman Pai has gotten lots of ISPs to sign the Keep Americans Connected Pledge.  While not designed to help schools, one of the provisions could be very helpful for urban/suburban districts where many students don't have home broadband.

The provision that could help those districts: each company "pledges for the next 60 days to:...(3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them."

So districts may be able to take advantage of that for students who don't have broadband at home.

I've reached out to the providers that I know have a lot of hotspots near my clients.  So far, no word on how they are opening their hotspots.

Here's what I've heard so far:
Comcast: offering their Internet Essentials plan free for the next 60 days for low-income families.
AlticeUSA (Cablevision/Lightpath): offering their Altice Advantage plan free for the next 60 days for low-income families any student without Internet access.
No word yet from Verizon.

Of course, this doesn't help districts in areas where hotspot coverage is, well, spotty.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Enough with the overbuilding comments already

For those who haven't been following the overbuilding saga, the FCC released an NPRM in May, to which reply comments were due July 15th.  Now, almost 8 months later, we get a new comment from Totelcom, one of the "Texas carriers" group that started this mess.

First, my irrepressible optimism [stop laughing]: if they're submitting new info, they must think things are not going their way up at the FCC.  That's good news, because the suggestions in their petition would be disastrous.

Next, my sense of fairness: hey, I can see wanting to post reply comments to other people's reply comments, but there has to be a limit, and replying 8 months later is way past any reasonable limit.

An interesting fact tucked in the addenda that Totelcom did not intend to us to notice: competition seems to work.  Before the overbuilding, Totelcom was offering 1 Gbps Internet connections for $2,000/month or more. ("Pricing will depend on speeds requested, but could be as low as $2.00 per Mb.")  Now they are offering 1 Gbps Internet connections for $499/month.  Now what could have caused a 75% price cut in 2 years?  Customers having another option, maybe?

My summary of Totelcom's price comparison: yes, Totelcom's apples were cheaper than WTTC's oranges.  Totelcom was offering each district a connection to the Internet.  WTTC was offering a region-wide WAN with an Internet connection.  If you go apples-to-apples, Totelcom wanted $24,000/year for 1 Gbps Internet, while WTTC wanted $261,000 for 10 Gbps Internet.  Of course, the WTTC proposal required building and operating a conveyor belt (the WAN) to get the apples to the schools, but I'm sure someone thought the conveyor belt WAN would be very useful for inter-district communication.  I'm not convinced the conveyor belt is worth the cost, but then, I'm quite anti-consortium and anti-statewide-network.

But here comes the good news: Totelcom is no longer requesting the draconian rule changes it originally asked for.  Here's what they're asking for now:
  1. The Commission should require that Applicants file FCC Form 470 and RFPs in every
    zip code in which service is being requested.
  2. E-Rate Applicants should not be allowed to give preferential weight to service providers
    capable of providing service to the entire region in the bid evaluation criteria in RFPs.
  3. Service Providers should be given additional time to respond to RFPs that cover more
    than 50 miles.
  4. To increase transparency in the RFP process and ensure cost-effectiveness of proposed
    services, Applicants should be required to publish certain information regarding its
    competitive bidding process.
  5. Ineligible locations and services should be excluded from the RFP process.
  6. [R]equire USAC to evaluate whether a school or library actually needs a newly constructed fiber network before granting upfront special construction costs for the same.
To which I say:
  1. Yup, the Form 470 sucks as a vehicle to promote competition.  If I were King of the E-Rate, I'd fix that by getting the FCC out of the business of regulating the purchasing procedures of local governmental entities.  Failing that, USAC should give vendors a better way to search 470s.  Or maybe leave it to the private sector; I can think of one tool that will even map 470 applicants for you.  Or get rid of consortia, which are the cause of this confusion.
  2. Now the FCC is going to tell local governments what they should want?  If some school districts want a region-wide WAN, they should be able to ask for one.  Let them justify the cost to their local taxpayers.
  3. This is reasonable.
  4. Most of the information that they request is part of the bidding process, and should be available on request, but "published"? No.  The info on how many strands and what they'll be used for is just more onerous bookkeeping.  I understand that losing bidders always want the info on their competitors' bids, but that doesn't mean they should get it.
  5. Well, Totelcom has a point, but sometimes it makes good fiscal sense for ineligible locations (town halls, police, whatever) in a project.  E-Rate should only pay to connect eligible locations, but the plan should be allowed to include ineligible locations.  It also seems to me that including ineligible locations would be to the advantage of carriers with fiber in place, since connections to ineligible locations would not get E-Rate subsidies, and the basis of the original complaint was that E-Rate subsidies were distorting the market.
  6. Oh, lordy.  How is USAC supposed to do that?  You think USAC is full of WAN engineers?  Guess again.  School network administrators?  Nope.  And when you get down to the sub-contractor PIA reviewers who would actually be making these decisions, forget it.  I'm all for better broadband mapping.  So Totelcom, how about starting us off by sharing complete info on all your fiber deployments?
You know what, though?  This list of suggestions is much better than the suggestions that were in the original petition.

But do we get to file reply comments this late in the game?  Ex parte food fight!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Part-time student? You don't count.

If I'd gotten around to a full review of the FCC's recent C2 Order, I would have mentioned the problem with excluding part-time students, but Infinity Communications & Consulting did even better, submitting a Petition for Reconsideration.

Basically, the FCC went too far. A few commenters on the C2 NPRM pointed out that having district-wide budgets would simplify the application process for some districts, where students were part-time in two schools in the same district.  True enough.  But for some reason, the FCC went further and said, "In another effort to streamline both the application filing and review process, going forward we will base student counts on full-time enrollment only and eliminate the need for schools or school districts to count part-time students in their enrollment numbers."

I suppose that's fine in states where county-wide districts almost never send students to another district for part of the day.  But not here in NJ (or, apparently, in California, since that's where Infinity is based).  Here in NJ, there are districts that are mostly part-time students.  How?  Well, in NJ, we have more school districts than municipalities.  So way back when, the state created county-wide vo-tech districts.  The model was this: students take all their academic classes at their home high school, and then go to a vo-tech school for part of the day if they want to study car mechanics or cosmetology or culinary arts or whatever.  In NJ, they're called "shared-time" students.  So the vo-tech districts generally had few or no full-time students.  That's been changing at some of the vo-tech districts recently, as the vo-tech districts have expanded into full-time programs, but some of the vo-techs still have a significant portion of "shared-time" students.  Now, the state of NJ reports "full-time equivalent" enrollment numbers to USAC, so a shared-time students only counted as half a student.  That seems fair, no?

But under the new rules, shared-time students can't be counted by either district.

I probably shouldn't point this out, since USAC probably doesn't realize that the state has been including half-students in their enrollment numbers (though they should have realized it, since enrollment totals for a school can be, for example, 232.5).

So how about instead of "simplifying" things by not counting part-time students, the Commission just says, "Whatever the state says your enrollment is, that's your enrollment."

Miffed about NIFs

Once again, SECA is the voice of reason.  They've submitted a Petition for Reconsideration, asking the FCC not to implement the heinous new shared C2 NIF cost allocation rule.  What am I talking about?  It's a rule (tucked in paragraph 51 the new C2 Order) that requires applicants buying new shared C2 equipment (a firewall used by the entire district, for example) to reduce the eligible cost if that equipment serves a NIF in addition to schools.  So if you've got 7 schools and a board office sharing an Internet connection, and you need a new firewall, it's only seven-eighths eligible (unless you use a different cost allocation method).

The SECA letter makes a number of good points, but it left out 2 compelling examples of complexity: consortia and changes.  (I mentioned these issues back in 2014, when the C2 budgets first appeared.)  Since SECA has a bunch of statewide networks in it, it's surprising that it didn't highlight how difficult this will make life for large consortia.  Suddenly a consortium has to keep track of all its members' NIFs in order to know how much it needs to cost-allocate out of any new shared equipment purchase.

The changes problem is this: if a district adds a NIF to its WAN, that retroactively changes the eligibility of all shared equipment.  So if a district bought a firewall to cover its 7 schools last year, and next year decides to move the board office into its own building, suddenly that firewall is only seven-eighths eligible, so the district should self-COMAD and self-RIDF.

What really sets my teeth on edge?  In paragraph 51, the Commission says that they're not changing the rules.  Then on page 29, they change the rules.  The rules didn't used to say: "When applying for category two support for eligible services to a non-instructional school building or library administrative building, the applicant shall deduct the cost of the non-instructional building’s use of the category two services or equipment."  Now that is in the rules.