FCC seeks comments on e-Rate eligibility

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking public comment on a number of proposed changes to the list of eligible services for the e-Rate, the $2.25 billion-a-year program that provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries. The proposed changes would broaden the list of eligible services in some areas; comments are due Sept. 18.

The notice states that the FCC seeks comment "on whether, beginning in Funding Year 2009, the Eligible Services List (ESL) should include filtering software, a broader classification of basic telephone service, dark fiber, text messaging, firewall service, anti-virus/anti-spam software, scheduling services, telephone broadcast messaging, and certain wireless internet access applications. In addition, we seek comment on whether to retain interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (interconnected VoIP) as an eligible service for future funding years."

During the ESL comment period in 2007 and 2008, many e-Rate applicants indicated that they would like to see those services made eligible.

The FCC is examining whether it should process interconnected VoIP requests as Priority One services, and if those requests need to meet requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

Also up for debate is whether stand-alone filtering software should be funded under the e-Rate program, because filtering software protects users from inappropriate content.  Currently, eMail software or other eligible components that include content filtering are eligible–but a separately priced content-filtering product is not, according to the FCC’s notice.

In 2001, the FCC determined that CIPA prohibited the use of e-Rate funding for filtering software. In issuing its ruling, the agency noted that the CIPA legislation says funds from the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 or the Library Services and Technology Act may be used to purchase filtering technology necessary to meet the law’s requirements. Because the law did not explicitly mention the e-Rate as a source of funding for filtering software, such technology should not be considered e-Rate eligible, it said.

Now, the FCC is seeking comment on whether it should reconsider its original interpretation of the law–that no sources of funds other than those explicitly listed in CIPA can be used to buy software to comply with the measure.

The notice also asks users if the FCC’s definition of basic telephone service should be expanded to include additional services, such as T1 lines. Previous comments on this service included one pointing out that "basic telephone service should include T1 lines, because broadband is a basic requirement for cost-effective telecommunications services."

The FCC requires schools and libraries participating in the e-Rate program to base their requests for discounts on an approved technology plan, unless they are seeking discounts on basic local, long-distance, cellular, PCS, or voice-mail service only. 

The agency also seeks comment on whether a handful of individual services–including text messaging, firewall and anti-virus/anti-spam software, scheduling services, and telephone broadcast messaging–should be eligible for the e-Rate.

Text messaging could be used for parental notification systems and services, such as during emergency communications. Many e-Rate applicants have argued that the ineligibility of text messaging is inconsistent with the treatment of other eligible messaging services, and this inconsistency makes it hard to assess e-Rate eligibility, the notice says.

Although text messaging has not been included in the ESL, eMail and paging–two other services that transmit electronic messages between users–are eligible for e-Rate funding.

The FCC hopes to determine "the extent to which SMS [text messaging] is functionally equivalent to e-Mail and paging, and how the current eligibility of these two messaging services should affect our treatment of text messaging as an eligible service."

Telephone broadcast messaging is also up for review. Making telephone broadcast messaging eligible for e-Rate support would enable schools to use programs to send pre-recorded messages to parents or guardians regarding school delays, absences, activities, and emergencies. Including that service in the e-Rate would enable schools to use parental notification systems, the FCC says.


Submit Electronic Comments to the FCC

FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking