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The FCC: No Soft Touch

The Federal Communications Commission is taking additional time to review about 50 appeals of Schools and Libraries Division decisions on the E-rate applications of schools and libraries. But, based on its rulings so far, it's clear that the FCC is not going to be a "soft touch" when it comes to their appeals.

Among the appeals it has rejected was one from an Illinois school district that argued that it had "received instructions and assurances from the SLD staff that its forms were correct for its services." The FCC said that while that was "unfortunate," it was not a basis to grant relief that would be contrary to program rules. "Persons relying on informal advice given by Commission staff do so at their own risk," the FCC staff added, citing a legal precedent involving the Office of Personnel Management. Further, the FCC decision said, both the instructions for the Form 470 and boldface text on the application form itself "clearly state" the correct interpretation of the rules.

The FCC also rejected two appeals by applicants who failed to meet the filing deadline for the 1999-2000 application year. In one case, it rejected the appeal of a library that tried to meet the filing deadline by sending in its certified signature by fax. In another, it rejected the appeal of a school whose application was sent by certified mail on March 29, 1999, but was not received until two weeks later, on April 12, six days after the close of the filing window. The school asserted that "this is ridiculous" because all of the paperwork previously sent by certified mail had taken only four days to be delivered. The FCC, however, was not moved.

The FCC was also unsympathetic in a case in which a school district failed to file its appeal to the FCC within 30 days of the issuance of the SLD's decision on its appeal.

In a separate ruling involving a network built under contract with the Tennessee Department of Education, the FCC also scotched the notion that it should support a particular technological approach simply because it was the most cost-effective solution. "Cost effectiveness," it wrote, "cannot transform an ineligible service into an eligible service." Its rules, it said, were designed to "ensure cost-effective administration of the schools and libraries support mechanism as a whole." Accepting the state's argument on this point, it said, "could lead to circumvention of these rules, which ultimately could lead to costly funding for ineligible services overall."

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