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FCC Approves Changes in E-rate Program, Seeks Comments on More

The Federal Communications Commission on April 23 formally approved new rules that it said were designed to streamline the E-rate application process and improve program oversight to help prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

The Commission approved a new policy that persons convicted of criminal violations or held civilly liable for misconduct arising from participation in the program will be debarred from the program for a period of at least three years.

The Commission also said that the Universal Service Administrative Company would be authorized to develop what was described as "a pilot program to create an online list of eligible equipment to wire schools," which it said "would facilitate expedited processing of many funding requests." This list will apparently apply only to internal connections. The Commission said it will seek comment on whether it should create a similar list for telecommunications services and Internet access.

The Commission also said it would treat voice-mail as an eligible bundled telecommunications service and permit wireless service to be eligible on the same basis as wireline service. In the past, applicants complained that it took a significant amount of time to break out voice mail services from bundled telephone services and to review which employees used cellular service. It was unclear how the Commission intended to treat voice mail as an internal connections service.

The rules also seek to clarify that duplicative services (through which parties could apply and qualify for support for the same services in two funding years) will not be eligible for E-rate discounts.

The Commission also is seeking comments on the most feasible method of carrying out an earlier ruling that will let undisbursed E-rate discounts to be rolled over for use in subsequent funding years. It will also seek comments on additional circumstances under which persons could be debarred from the program.

All five members of the Commission expressed strong support for the E-rate program during their public meeting. The Commission has scheduled a public forum on the program for May 8 to explore some of the issues that will be embodied in its next Notice of Proposed Rule-Making.

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