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Published in Print: November 2, 2005, as FCC Offers E-Rate Aid to Hurricane-Affected Schools

FCC Offers E-Rate Aid to Hurricane-Affected Schools

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A recent order issued by the Federal Communications Commission seeks to help hundreds of schools affected by Hurricane Katrina restore their telecommunications through the federal E-rate program.

The Oct. 14 order, which put into effect a promise the agency made in September, also gives special help to schools that have taken in students displaced from Katrina-affected areas.

Schools directly affected by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in late August, will be granted a 90 percent discount on requests for “internal connections,” referring to the wiring and computer equipment that provide the Internet and networked communications in schools and classrooms. The special rate will cover requests for the 2005 funding year, which runs through next June, and for the 2006 funding year.

Schools receiving that benefit must be located in Alabama or Mississippi counties, or Louisiana parishes, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared eligible for individual disaster assistance. The applicants must also have incurred substantial damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Damage due to Hurricane Rita is not covered by the temporary rules change.

Special Dispensation

Federal E-rate money for telecommunications will be specially targeted to schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina, as well as to those that have received an influx of displaced students from the storm.

Key elements of the plan:

• The special discounts will be available for the E-rate's 2005 and 2006 funding years. Applications for the 2005 funding year, which runs through next June, will be accepted until Dec. 13.

• The highest level of discounts, covering 90 percent of the cost of eligible telecommunications equipment and installation, will be avilable to schools that have suffered damage in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared eligible for individual assistance.

• Schools that have taken in Katrina evacuees totaling at least 10 percent of their prior enrollments may amend their 2005 E-rate applications to account for the unexpected increase in population.

The changes will pour about $96 million into telecommunications projects in schools and libraries in the areas devastated by Katrina, with another $36 million going to other parts of the U.S. Most of that money will come out of the $2.25 billion the program collects each year for schools from long-distance ratepayers.

Schools that were indirectly affected by Katrina, though not Rita, by enrolling evacuated students, are getting special handling as well, though their telecommunications projects will receive their normal discount rates, which can range from 20 percent to 90 percent, based on the poverty levels of the schools’ enrollments.

The FCC is allowing both groups of schools, as well as public libraries, to submit revised applications for 2005, with a Dec. 13 deadline. The original application window closed in September.

The schools must apply for the discounts for projects that follow their existing technology plans and restore equivalent systems to what they had before Katrina.

The Washington-based Universal Services Administrative Corp., a nonprofit entity that administers the E-rate under the FCC’s oversight, has created a Web page for Katrina-affected schools and their vendors. The Web site is http://katrina-usf.org/katrina.

House Report

The FCC said in its order that it would “balance the need for quick and decisive action … with our overarching need to protect the program against waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Almost since its beginning in 1998, the E-rate program has been dogged by charges of waste and fraud committed by a portion of the thousands of participating technology vendors and schools.

On Oct. 18, just days after the FCC order was issued, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee issued a report summarizing its yearlong inquiry into E-rate waste and fraud.

The report, which was approved unanimously by the subcommittee’s 11 members on Oct. 18, concludes that the E-rate is “a well-intentioned program that nonetheless is extremely vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse, is poorly managed by the FCC, and completely lacks tangible measures of either effectiveness or impact.”

The report gives examples of several large school projects that are alleged to have been tainted by school district or corporate wrongdoing or incompetence. It also states that there are currently about 30 active federal and state investigations of vendors or beneficiaries of E-rate funds, involving more than $200 million in questionable funding commitments.

USAC officials have pointed out, though, that some of the suspect projects in the House panel’s report had been detected by the program’s own review process.

The report recommends that the program be revised by requiring school districts to put more of their own money into projects. Another recommendation is to make oversight more rigorous, which may entail adding personnel to USAC. That finding echoes USAC’s own recommendation.

The FCC is the process of revising its rules for the program, which may be completed next year.

Vol. 25, Issue 10, Page 24

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