WASHINGTON, D.C.—The federal E-Rate program is intended to give schools and libraries affordable access to internet and telecom services. But recent program changes made by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the E-rate Program administrator, have created confusion among E-Rate applicants and service providers alike, leading to fears that some schools and libraries may miss out on the needed broadband support they are eligible to receive.

Womble Bond Dickinson attorneys Rebecca Jacobs Goldman and Mark Palchick met with members of the FCC on March 14 to address the significant concern facing E-Rate participants. Goldman and Palchick represented firm client the Ohio Information Technology Centers in the presentation. Presentations were made to the staff of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, as well as the offices of the FCC Commissioners and Chairman Ajit Pai.

The concerns involve changes made, without proper FCC notice, comment and authorization, to the instruction, filing guidelines and definitions of permitted eligible services for purposes of the FCC Form 470, which allows schools and libraries to seek bids for eligible services.

In previous years, schools and libraries using this form were able to seek bids for basic conduit Internet access under the platform-neutral category of “Bundled Internet Access and Transport.” However, beginning in August 2017, USAC advised applicants that this no longer would be an option if the school or library wished to seek bids for basic conduit Internet access provided over fiber. Instead, USAC directed applicants to seek bids for three different categories of service: Bundled Internet Access and Transport, Lit Fiber Transport and Internet Access/ISP Only.

The USAC guidance was made without proper authorization and contradicts previous statements made by the FCC, Goldman and Palchick said. In addition, the FCC “has repeatedly stated that USAC guidance is non-binding.”

In an ex parte letter filed after the meeting, Goldman and Palchick said, “The changes have caused extensive confusion among E-rate applicants and service providers alike and could result in costly funding denials for schools and libraries.”

For example, applicants are confused about which category they should use, and whether or not they must break down costs between transport and internet access.

FCC officials said during the meeting that applicants can file appeals if they felt they were unfairly denied funding. However, Goldman and Palchick noted that the appeals process was time-consuming and costly and not a proper remedy.

They have asked the FCC to provide formal clarification on the E-rate filing process and to protect applicants that were adversely affected by the unauthorized changes made by USAC. A number of industry organizations, including CSM Consulting, Inc., Funds for Learning, LLC, and the State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance, also filed letters in support of the Ohio Information Technology Centers’ request for clarification and protection to applicants.

Rebecca Jacobs Goldman has a diverse communications law practice, guiding clients in media law, Internet, telecom, cable, broadcast and privacy/data protection matters. She counsels communications industry clients in negotiating contracts and complex business transactions, as well as helping them resolve disputes and regulatory challenges. Her clients include cable operators, broadband service providers, video programmers, network operators, spectrum owners, radio broadcasters and telecommunications companies.

Mark Palchick has been an attorney in the communications field since 1975. He is experienced in matters relating to the domestic and international cable industry, international copyright, negotiations of program affiliation agreements, E-rate funding, pole attachment matters, interconnection agreements between private carriers and other FCC regulatory matters. In 2013 he was honored by the Cable Television Industry and inducted into the Cable Pioneers.