Even as the 2019 E-rate season gets underway, hundreds of school and library applicants are still waiting to learn if they will receive the funding they requested last year, the result of an application-review process some observers deride as cumbersome despite years’ worth of promised fixes.
The delays are “woefully par for the course,” said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla.-based consulting group that helps thousands of schools and libraries apply each year to program.
Five years ago, the Federal Communications Commission overhauled the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries cover the cost of internet and other telecommunications services. The changes were supposed to ensure that applicants who submitted funding requests in the spring would know by September 1 of the same year whether they were receiving the requested dollars.
“That was 2014,” Harrington said. “Here we are in 2019, and they’re still trying to attain that.”
An FCC spokesman said that E-rate support is being delivered “as quickly and efficiently as possible,” noting that 98.7 percent of the roughly 36,000 E-rate applications submitted in 2018 have been processed. That’s up a tick from the same point last year.
Chairman Ajit Pai “continues to focus on putting E-rate funds to work as quickly as possible for students and communities,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Supported through fees on consumers’ telephone bills, the $3.9 billion federal E-rate program is widely regarded as a key driver in the successful effort to bring high-speed broadband to nearly all the nation’s schools. Complaints remain, however, about the program’s laborious application process, as well as ongoing delays with some “special construction” requests submitted by rural and remote districts that have trouble finding affordable internet access on the private market.
While the FCC is responsible for the program and the regulations that govern it, the nonprofit Universal Services Administrative Company administers the E-rate’s day-to-day operations, including the review of applications.
As of February 1, 752 E-rate applications from the 2018 funding year, seeking a total of $356 million, were still under review, according to a blog post authored by Harrington of Funds for Learning earlier this month. That amounted to nearly 13 percent of all E-rate funds requested last year, he wrote.
The bulk of the pending requests (more than $115 million) were for “lit fiber” service, delivering high-speed broadband over fiber-optic cable.
Schools and libraries applying as members of a consortium were particularly affected by the delays; their requests account for more than half of the requested funds that are still under review, according to the post.
Harrington attributed the problems to continued issues with USAC’s electronic-application system, as well as ongoing confusion in interpreting the new regulations approved as part of the 2014 E-rate overhaul.
Why has it taken five years to get such clarity?
“That’s the $4 billion question,” Harrington said.
Changes at the FCC and USAC have been made, Harrington noted, including to the E-rate’s electronic filing system, to the contractor who handles application reviews, and to USAC’s customer-service staff.
But from the perspective of the hundreds of schools and libraries still in limbo, he noted, there hasn’t yet been a payoff. And the result has been cash-flow challenges and the forced reshuffling of funds just to maintain existing network speeds, rather than pursuing needed upgrades.
“The FCC can ponder its regulations ad nauseum,” Harrington said. “But schools and libraries have to deliver the internet on a daily basis.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.