'E-Rate' for Telecom Costs Spurs Districts To Weigh Options

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Like customers in a newly opened pastry shop, educators are sizing up their options in the recent Federal Communications Commission order to provide discounted telecommunications services for nearly all the nation's schools and libraries.

Linda Smith, the technology director in California's San Bernadino City Unified School District, said the "E-rate" discounts mean the schools there will begin installing telecommunications wires in classrooms rather than just in school media centers next year. Plans to wire the 45,000-student district have been on hold as the state legislature has wrangled over whether to release millions of dollars in school technology aid.

For Paul Reese, the technology coordinator at the Ralph Bunche School in New York City, the discounts mean that the Harlem school for grades 3-6 will remain a technological showplace. Donations and grants provided a network of 100 computers with Internet access and e-mail accounts for all the students, but the school struggles to pay for its leased-line Internet connection that is billed at the business rate.

And Henry Marockie, the West Virginia superintendent of schools, said the discounts mean a rapid extension of the state's telecommunications network into the classrooms at nearly all its 870 schools as well as statewide pooling of school telecommunications purchases to get the lowest possible prices.

"A child in Yeager, West Virginia, will have the same access to the Smithsonian Institution [through the museum's site on the World Wide Web], as a child in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Marockie said.

The FCC order approved this month makes nearly all the nation's schools eligible for discounts of from 20 percent to 90 percent on the cost of all commercially available telecommunications services, Internet access, and internal connections beginning next January. ("FCC Approves Discount Plan for Schools," May 14, 1997.)

But although the section of the order covering schools and libraries totals 87 single-spaced pages, the commission has yet to decide many key details on how educators will get the discounts.

Procedures Still Unclear

The size of a school's discount will be determined by the number of its students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and by whether it is in a high-cost location for telecommunications. Libraries will receive discounts based on the school lunch eligibility of their districts.

A universal-service fund will compensate companies that provide the telecommunications services, which include telephone and Internet services, installation and maintenance of networks, and wiring of classrooms. The price for those services must be determined by competitive bids.

The FCC is still deciding what information will be required on the application form and the procedure for reviewing applications. The commission is being advised on those matters by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Education & Library Networks Coalition, or EdLiNC, a group of 37 education and library groups.

Complicating matters is the likelihood that the order will face a court challenge from some telephone companies, which could put the discounts on hold, said Leslie A. Harris, a lawyer and a consultant to the Washington-based Consortium of School Networking.

Under the order, beginning Jan. 1, 1998, the administrator of the fund will assess fees from the nation's telecommunications providers. At the same time, eligible schools and libraries could begin to receive discounts.

The fund will dole out up to $9 billion in discounts over the first four years, with a cap of $1 billion the first six months and $2.25 billion the first year.

The application form is being designed to place the "minimum burden" on applicants, said an FCC official who is involved in writing the school and library provisions but asked not to be named.

He said applications would likely be accepted beginning early in September, with new applications required for discounts for each calendar year.

The official said the FCC, while not wanting to dictate specifics such as the architecture of communication networks, is concerned that applicants only request discounts for services that they have the infrastructure and equipment to use effectively.

School plans would be reviewed for a "showing of readiness" by an outside evaluator, which might be the state government or another body, he said.

Preparing Early

Expert observers say school leaders who wish to take best advantage of the discounts have a laundry list of things to do now--even without further details from the FCC.

First, they should read the FCC order and the summaries offered by the commission and other knowledgeable sources "so they understand what this law is all about," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. He said the new rule differs substantially from the federal rules that districts are used to dealing with.

Educators also should get in touch with the public utility commission in their state to determine whether there is a state-level telecommunications-discounting arrangement that is at least as favorable to schools and libraries as the federal plan--a requirement if federal discounts are to be available in that state.

Schools should waste no time getting their own houses in order, too, experts say.

They should dust off their school and district technology plans or draft one right away, since an approved technology plan will be an application requirement, said Linda Roberts, the technology adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Another task is to make a thorough inventory of all the technology in the school or district, including where it is and what it's being used for.

Schools then need to identify what technology options are available to meet the district's needs and which are eligible for discounts--including wired, wireless, and cable delivery systems. Computer purchases, training, and staff salaries aren't eligible, so schools need to look elsewhere for support in those areas.

Schools, districts, and states should determine who should be the applicant for different discounted services, Mr. Ambach said. The order allows great flexibility in forming regional groups of eligible schools and libraries--and even combinations of eligible and ineligible institutions.

The discounts would only go to the eligible participants, but schools and libraries could benefit from sharing networks, pooling purchases to achieve lower prices, or taking advantage of a state's ability to negotiate favorable contracts, he said.

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