Though the filing window closes in February, it's never too early to start the planning and paperwork for E-rate funds from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The program's impact has been critical to broadband connectivity for many schools, especially when it comes to ensuring infrastructure is up-to-date and there's enough bandwidth for the ballooning amount of tech in classrooms. This only grows in importance as more states take their annual standardized exams digital, particularly for rural schools and low-income schools at large.
But what do administrators need to know as they prepare to file for next year's funds? From a Texas dispute over new infrastructure to impending Category Two changes, here are a few of the biggest details to note.
What's going on in Texas?
On May 22, 2019, Central Texas Telephone Cooperative, Inc.; Peoples Telephone Cooperative, Inc.; and Totelcom Communications, LLC (collectively referred to in related documents as the "Texas Carriers") filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC over the efforts of rural schools consortia, represented by regional education service centers (ESCs), to build out their own fiber networks.
These efforts, the Texas Carriers alleged, amounted to overbuilding of existing networks and exploitation of competitive bidding loopholes. The issue has garnered the attention of FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who mentioned it in remarks before the Hudson Institute earlier this year.
"Given the large geographic scope of the projects and the short window to respond with a bid, small rate-of-return carriers didn’t stand a chance," O'Rielly said, additionally suggesting the "overbuilding scheme has created serious financial problems for those providers and undermined their ability to build out to more remote areas in their communities."
Ultimately, O'Rielly's concern is that the Universal Service Fund, which E-rate falls under, is implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible. But many onlookers aren't buying the carriers' point of view.
The Internet and Competitive Networks Association (INCOMPAS), AASA, The School Superintendents Association and the ESCs themselves are among those who've commented in response to the rulemaking petition. To associations like INCOMPAS and AASA, the carriers' complaint is "anti-competitive," "protectionist," and "not necessary to prevent waste, fraud and abuse."
"For the three Education Service Centers — 10, 14 and 15 — at the center of this petition for rulemaking, they dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't' in terms of compliance with E-rate application and RFP requirements," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA. All three ESCs, she added, left their application periods open "for at least twice as long as required."
Gordon Taylor, executive director for the Region 10 Education Service Center, said the project was in line with FCC E-rate modernization rules that took effect in 2014. It was also in line with a program initiated by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott with matching funds from the state legislature to create regional consortia for providing in essence, fiber optic networks for schools.
The idea, he said, is to ensure high-speed, low-cost connectivity for all of the state's students so resources can be spread elsewhere, particularly as more of the state's testing goes digital.
Taylor reiterates the service centers left their RFPs open for about twice as long as necessary. "The federal law only requires 28 days of notice. In our case, we put ours out for 51 days," he said. "We left it open for responses for much longer because there's a good bit of detail there."
"We pushed beyond to make sure we're providing an opportunity for those who could provide the service to us to give us a proposal, give us a bid."
Region 10, he said, got eight responses from four companies, with different options for approaching the project. After they chose one and the board approved it, they announced the contractor, went through the process of establishing the contract, and did the filing for E-rate and for state matching funds.
That's when the carriers stepped in and filed their petition to the FCC.
"They went through the petition process, contacted the FCC, and established their petition for rule change rather than coming to us," Taylor said. "They did not respond to our RFP. They did not submit questions about our RFP. They didn't attend a meeting we had for anybody who would be interested in the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification before the RFP process starts. They didn't participate in any of that."
As for the overbuilding claim, Ellerson Ng noted school districts have no way of knowing where fiber already exists, as there aren't maps for them to reference and "that's not their expertise."
Ellerson Ng also takes issue with the suggestion that the carriers wouldn't have known one of their biggest anchor institutions — a school or library — had a contract coming up during that timeframe. "Most people operating in a market like that would be well aware of when the biggest fish in the pond is going to be up for grabs in terms of providing the service," she said.
"They posted it in the required clearinghouse where all E-rate RFPs go. It wasn't hidden. It wasn't selectively given to some providers and not others. It was universally available for anyone who might be bidding."
So will this affect administrators applying for E-rate funding to build out fiber networks this year? According to John Harrington, CEO of E-rate consultancy Funds For Learning, the answer is, "No."
"The reason I say so is that the FCC has released a proposed eligible services list for next year, and it includes self-provisioned, applicant-owned fiber on it," he said. "So we don't see any specific movements in the regulations related to the eligible services. If they were going to change that, this would be the time to do so."
That, however, doesn't mean it won't change, but Harrington advises the earliest he could see that happening is 2021. "So now is the time for savvy, forward-looking applicants interested in building out segments of their own fiber optic network to really consider doing that for this upcoming 2020 funding year, because it might not be there in the future, depending upon what the FCC does."
In an update on the situation, Taylor told Education Dive that Region 10's E-rate application received final approval in late September, with funding notification arriving the following week. Regions 14, 15 and 20 have also started receiving their funding that had previously stopped.
What options might E-rate provide to close the homework gap?
Those keeping up with the ins and outs of E-rate for a while would know that addressing the homework gap — in which students who lack sufficient home internet access are unable to complete digital homework assignments — is a hot topic. Closing that gap is also a goal of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is often credited with coining the term.
Many K-12 onlookers had hoped a slice of underutilized airwaves known as the Educational Broadband Service (EBS), which dates back to the Kennedy administration, could be used as the world transitioned to broadband. Those hopes were dashed when the FCC took steps to auction off pieces of EBS and commercialize it.
That decision, Harrington said, "felt like a punch in the gut."
But there may soon be other options: A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in August suggests the FCC will explore the cost of making E-Rate funding available to the homes of families with students who lack broadband access. The FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics is currently collecting data and also examining a 2011 pilot program that expanded E-Rate into homes.
"What I'm excited about from that GAO report is it does begin to lay a foundation for the FCC to take steps to address the homework gap via the E-rate program within the next few years," Harrington said. "I do not expect to see any immediate change."
But he does expect it could land on the commission's docket next year, with a push for public comments and feedback on how the E-rate program could be leveraged to address the homework gap.
Will Category Two changes include cybersecurity service eligibility?
Category Two products and services covered under E-rate include eligible products like access points, routers, switches, hubs and wiring located on premises and necessary for the transport of information to classrooms, as well as managed internal broadband services provided by a third party and basic maintenance of internal connections.
That's a mouthful, but the big thing to know is the FCC is currently in the process of finalizing changes following a five-year pilot program that Harrington said has been very successful. The rulemaking process is still underway, but he expects a similar system to what currently exists — but with a few improvements.
Wi-fi, networking equipment, data cabling and the other "usual suspects" will still be eligible, but one of the biggest expected improvements could include eligibility for cybersecurity services, which are particularly crucial as schools and districts remain a popular hacker target.
"One of the areas they recognize needs additional support is network security, network monitoring and management," Harrington said. "You can't keep the network up and running without more sophisticated security and management and monitoring tools. It's not officially on the rules yet, but every indication is that's the way they're going because that's really the way the world is going."