E-Rate coordinators risk losing funds for broadband projects

erate, FETC, funding, e-rate coordinatorDuring the recent State Educational Technology Directors Association leadership summit, state E-Rate coordinators brought concerns about E-Rate funding directly to officials at the Federal Communications Commission.

Their contention mostly centered on the state match for E-Rate funds, which was authorized as part of the second E-Rate Modernization Order. The provision allows a state to provide eligible schools and libraries with funding for special construction charges to deploy broadband networks. The E-Rate program will provide a 1:1 dollar match in extra Category One funding up to an additional 10 percent discount.

Participants largely agreed that the process for receiving funding commitment letters under new requirements has moved too slow, hindering their ability to complete broadband infrastructure projects.

“Most states have funding that ends on June 30, when the fiscal year ends,” said Amy McLaughlin, director of IT operations for the Oregon Department of Education. “And because it’s the end of our biennium [in 2017], any funds that are general funds that are not expended by then just go off into the ether. If you don’t spend the money by a certain date, it just goes away,” she said in reference to the state match.

“Because USAC isn’t moving tightly, our projects serving the most rural communities that have the smallest populations” and where construction is most expensive due to topography are suffering, she said.

“Because of the slowness of this process, those bids are now held up, then weather rolls in and then they’re held up further,” she added. “And then we’re in a slam to try to get the build out at least partially done so you can pay for it before you run out of money before the funding year ends.”

The state match, McLaughlin said, “really matters.”

“If you’re a community that gets 80 percent from E-Rate, and the state pays 10 percent and then you get an extra 10 percent, that’s a difference between them having to fork out $8,000 or $10,000 out of pocket for that build, which might be the equivalent of $100 per kid in the district,” McLaughlin said.

“They’re the equity gap,” she added. “They’re the folks who cannot get Algebra II, trigonometry or calculus, or advanced biology, because there is no one in the town who can teach it. How do they apply to go to college if you cannot get online to do searches for schools and fill out the forms?”

‘Yeoman’s work’

In response to McLaughlin and others’ concerns, FCC officials reminded attendees that this is the first year under new rules, and USAC is carefully reviewing states’ eligibility before green-lighting funding commitments. They said the extra attention is delaying approvals.

Aaron Garza, deputy chief of the Telecommunications Access Policy Division at the Wireline Competition Bureau, said the agency recognizes that the past funding year “has been a difficult one” for applicants due to new rules and challenges with the E-Rate application filing system, EPC.

He assured attendees that USAC has “really been doing yeoman’s work to try and stabilize the system to ensure it’s ready for this next funding year.”

Under existing rules, charges concerning special construction projects, which include dark fiber and self-provisioning broadband networks, must be done by the end of the E-Rate funding year, June 30, in order to be eligible for support.

If USAC delivers funding letters with short notice, however, LEAs have a brief window in which to complete broadband projects, and Elizabeth Drogula — special counsel for the Wireline Competition Bureau — acknowledged this is a problem shared by a number of states.

In some cases, SEAs can take advantage of a provision in the Second E-Rate Modernization Order, which allows applicants to seek a one-year extension on broadband projects “if they can demonstrate that construction was unavoidably delayed due to weather or other reasons.”

A delayed funding letter could constitute an “other reason,” she said.

The second modernization order also allows applicants to start construction six months in advance under certain conditions, she noted.

“We are aware that the [Funding Commitment Decision Letters] are coming out in a slower pace, and that that’s creating some issues,” she told attendees. “This is the first year of these new rules and USAC has had to create an entirely new system.”

“They deliberately, to some extent, are taking a very detailed, serious approach to looking at these [applications], and taking their time doing it because it’s the first year and they want to make sure that they’re getting it right,” she continued. “It’s been a little bit slower process, but were hoping that process will speed up in future years once they have experience under their belt. They’re really making a good faith effort to get this done.”

Save the date: John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, will present the January 27 session Preparing for E-Rate Funding 2017. This session is part of the Future of EdTech Administrator session track at the National Future of Education Technology Conference. Full agenda details are available at www.fetc.org.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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