After my colleagues attended three earlier USAC E-rate training events this year, I expected that most of what I would experience at the Portland, Ore. training would be old news to me.
 
There aren’t any sweeping new E-rate rules this year, and I generally do my best to pretend that EPC doesn’t exist, so my bar was set pretty low on the opportunity to learn new things. Even the multitude of questions that many hurricane affected applicants may have about the second FY2017 filing window were pretty much off the table, since this was a west coast crowd (Dirk and I did manage to find possibly the only other Okie in attendance).
 
Low expectations tend to temper your experience, but they can also highlight and emphasize pleasant surprises. Two such unexpected unicorns were Coava Coffee Roasters and Stumptown Coffee Roasters - I eagerly shoved about four pounds of beans from these two into my suitcase. I had some wonderful coffee at the USAC training, but these offerings were far superior.
 
Similarly, I got some well-intentioned and enthusiastic E-rate training from USAC, which was wonderful. (EPC) Kudos to them for planning and presenting these training events, as they truly are necessary for a program that can be convoluted and complicated.
As good as it is to get E-rate training from USAC, there was also a hidden gem that stood out even though it was brief – the data tools break out session.
 
USAC has a team that has been working to provide open access to data from all the of the programs in the Universal Service Fund, including the E-rate program. They were able to guide us through the Beta version of these tools and showcase data that can be useful for many applications. Having new access to this information is great, even though it is the same data that already existed somewhere else.
After drinking an espresso from Coava, I wouldn’t even want to smell a cup of instant coffee (to be fair I haven’t sniffed instant coffee in 20 years). The difference is too great, and I don’t want to settle.
 
The same goes for openness in the E-rate program. Just like the data, the E-rate rules are (mostly) not new. But having clarity and access to the rules would be an incredible step forward for applicants. Knowing how the rules apply to your particular situation would be even better.
 
So, here’s my challenge to USAC – make your training and outreach just as open as your data. Give real-world (anonymous) examples of how the rules apply, and how some applicants have found success. Let E‑rate stakeholders know the pitfalls that have snuck up on others. These trainings events can be useful for many applicants, but only as far as they are allowed to see how the rules work.
 
Most applicants do not live and breathe in the world of E-rate and a lot of this is foreign to them., so walking through the rules (not EPC) and how they play out in the real world could be the difference between funding success, and funding failure.
 
Candyland is a fun game because everyone can understand the rules, and everyone can win. Let’s try to bring some of that to the table in next year’s applicant training.