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Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as Auditors Are Critical of the FCC’s Stewardship of the E-Rate Program

Auditors Are Critical of the FCC’s Stewardship of the E-Rate Program

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The Federal Communications Commission is doing a poor job of overseeing the E-rate program, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last week.

According to the congressional watchdog agency, the FCC has not devised useful performance goals and measures for the program, which provides money to schools and libraries for Internet connections and other telecommunications costs. Because the FCC did not isolate the impact of E-rate money in connecting schools, it remains unclear to what extent increases in such schools can be attributed to the federal funds, the GAO says.

The commission has shifted important responsibilities to the Universal Services Administrative Co., or USAC, a quasi-private entity that administers the program, the report notes. Combined with the FCC’s lax oversight, that move has permitted fraud and abuse to occur, the report contends.

The “education rate” program, which has channeled nearly $14 billion in aid to schools and libraries since its inception in 1997, provides eligible institutions with discounts of up to 90 percent on telecommunications services and Internet access. There have been numerous allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse by recipients and vendors.

The GAO report was released at a March 16 congressional hearing, where the FCC came under fire.

“The mismanagement of the E-rate program seems to know few bounds,” Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the hearing before the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.

The GAO report, which led some lawmakers to question whether the FCC was the best agency to oversee the program, reviews how the structure of the E-rate program has affected its management by the FCC, looks into the development and use of performance goals and measures, and assesses the effectiveness of the current accountability measures imposed by the agency.

According to the report, the role of USAC has made it difficult for the FCC to ensure that accountability and financial requirements for the E-rate program are met.

A Move to Education Dept.?

To address those issues, the report recommends that the FCC establish E-rate performance goals and measures, examine which federal accountability requirements apply to the E-rate, and reduce the backlog of recipients’ appeals on funding decisions.

Jeffrey Carlisle, the chief of the FCC’s wireline competition bureau, defended the management of the program. He pointed out the commission has adopted new rules for the recovery of improperly disbursed funds and directed USAC to conduct extensive audits of E-rate beneficiaries.

“We believe that the current USAC structure is consistent with congressional intent and conforms to congressional guidance,” he said in a statement.

While several members of subcommittee expressed a desire to see the program continue, they questioned Mr. Carlisle on why the commission has been slow to recover misused funds, why structural and administrative changes were not made earlier, and whether the FCC is the most competent agency to oversee the E-rate.

“The only logical place it could go—and I’ll make no friends by saying this—is the U.S Department of Education,” Mr. Carlisle replied. The FCC, he said, is a relatively small agency and has done the best it could to direct the program efficiently.

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Page 23

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