If you’re applying for the 2009 e-Rate, the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries, you won’t find many new additions to this year’s program, e-Rate officials say. Instead, you’ll find live training sessions, online videos, and other web-based resources designed to help you become more comfortable with the e-Rate application process.
Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the agency that administers the e-Rate, said the SLD is "trying to show, as much as we possibly can, how to do everything, because when the application is successful, that’s what the program is all about."
The "cleaner" and more thorough an application is once it reaches the SLD, the more likely the applicant is to receive funding, officials say–and the quicker this funding reaches the applicant. The more questions an application raises, the more back-and-forth interaction between the applicant and the SLD is required, and the longer it takes for funding approval.
This year’s training sessions aim to show attendees as much as possible by offering concrete examples. For instance, rather than simply telling e-Rate coordinators how to fill out a form correctly, presenters are taking participants through each part of the form during training sessions.
The SLD also is creating a series of 7-minute videos to break down the essential information from training sessions into short summaries. These videos will be available on the SLD’s web site.
"We realize that people don’t have two to five hours to sit at a computer and listen to the training videos, so we’re breaking [them] down into bite-sized pieces," Blackwell said. The SLD plans to cover the application process as it pertains Forms 470 and 471 as well as to provide audit-related information in these videos.
In fact, attempting to "demystify" the audi process will be a major focus at this year’s SLD training sessions.
e-Rate coordinators are anxious when they hear they will be audited," Blackwell said, "and justifiably so." But "we’re trying to let people know what we’ll ask for, and what records they need to keep and why . . . one of the biggest things people ask is the ‘why.’"
This year, a whole afternoon of training is devoted to e-Rate audits, and SLD’s internal auditors are on hand to answer questions and go through the audit process.
Another new aspect of this year’s training is a separate track for e-Rate beginners.
Each year, the SLD asks training-session participants to complete an evaluation form. Over the past few years, Blackwell said, many participants have indicated they would like the option of attending a "beginners" session.
SLD officials estimated that as many as 30 percent of this year’s training attendees are beginners. One advantage to holding separate training sessions for e-Rate newcomers is that people who attend a beginner session feel less pressure and are more comfortable asking basic questions without feeling intimidated, Blackwell said.
The beginners’ session includes a guide to e-Rate terms and eligible services, a tour of the SLD’s web site, and an overview of the application process.
The guide to terms explains common e-Rate acronyms, what each acronym or term is used for, how to fill out forms, how USAC reviews and uses each form, and other useful information. During the review of eligible services, beginners learn about Priority One and Two funding and what equipment goes along with each category, as well as what is on the eligible-services list and how eligible items are chosen.
The beginners’ review also includes a tour of the SLD web-site tour, during which attendees can see where different e-Rate forms are located, how to search for information, where to sign up for weekly news briefs, and how to access tip sheets and other information. A presentation on the e-Rate application process covers important things applicants should know before beginning the process, essential steps, the elements of a technology plan, and what happens during each stage of the application process.
An advanced e-Rate applicant session and the afternoon e-Rate audit session round out the first day of presentations. A session focusing on mandatory components of the e-Rate process takes place on the second morning of training.
The audit session takes both beginners and experienced e-Rate applicants through USAC’s audit process. The presentation explains how the audit process works, the different types of audits and why they are necessary, and gives examples of rule violations. The 90-page PowerPoint presentation also includes examples of documentation that auditors might request and where to find information online.
Although there are no changes to the application forms and no major additions to or subtractions from the basic e-Rate process, Blackwell said the SLD is trying to expand its Helping Applicants to Succeed (HATS) program, in which applicants call the SLD with their questions or problems, and an SLD representative then provides assistance via phone, video conference, or even an on-site visit to the applicant’s district.
"We’ll expand that program quite a bit in areas where we’ve found people have had problems, been denied, or had audit problems," Blackwell said.
Some e-Rate applicants have declined HATS help in the past, because they’ve been wary of the program’s intentions: Some might think SLD representatives are looking for reasons to audit their district. But just the opposite is true, according to Blackwell: SLD representatives are trying to help applicants as much as possible.
"I think that’s a new chapter for us," he said. "The applications are getting better, I’ll tell you that–it’s one sign that things are working."
The FCC recently issued a notice seeking comment on whether it should make a number of proposed changes to the list of eligible e-Rate services (See "FCC seeks comments on e-Rate eligibility"). Comments were due Sept. 18, with replies due Oct. 3.
As of press time, the SLD had not announced when the 2009 e-Rate filing window would open. Based on prior years, however, e-Rate season should begin sometime in early November. (eSchool News will report the exact dates as soon as they are announced.)
Meanwhile, here is some basic advice from SLD officials to help you navigate the complex e-Rate application process:
• Read and follow all directions thoroughly, provide complete documentation, keep that documentation for at least five years, and don’t wait until the last minute to file your application.
• When posting a Form 470 or Request For Proposals, (1) allow enough time to accommodate the required 28-day posting period; (2) clarify whether you’re seeking a multi-year contract; (3) indicate whether you’ve put out a corresponding RFP; and (4) post for all correct categories of service.
• Review the Receipt Notification Letter (RNL) for accuracy, making sure it includes the correct service categories for your requests.
• During the competitive-bidding process, (1) wait 28 days before choosing a service provider and signing a contract; (2) document the competitive-bidding process carefully, saving all relevant correspondence and documentation; and (3) check to see if your vendor selections need board approval before you are cleared to sign a contract.
• When completing a Form 471, (1) be sure your discount calculations are correct, and (2) check that Priority 1 and Priority 2 requests are filed as separate applications.
• Review your Receipt Acknowledgement Letter (RAC) for accuracy.
• Pay attention to the correct sequence of important e-Rate milestones: (1) allowable contract date (28 days after filing a Form 470); then (2) actual contract award date; then (3) filing of Form 471; then (4) Form 471 certification date; all before (5) close of the e-Rate filing window.