The FCC has proposed a federal takeover of the local E-rate bidding process for internet access and Wi-Fi. The new rules would require all vendor proposals be submitted to USAC ahead of the bid review process and funding application. This, despite the fact the FCC recently agreed such a system would be burdensome and not in the public’s best interest. Applicants who support local control of purchasing decisions are encouraged to sign this petition to maintain local authority.
Back in July 2014, the FCC overhauled the E-rate program, placing an emphasis on the importance of affordable internet access, cost-effective purchasing decisions, and a more effective application process for schools and libraries. A key strategy in achieving these goals was enhanced public access to information. The FCC called for a new online system for gathering data and publishing it all online, concluding that “increasing pricing transparency is likely to increase competition and drive down prices.” (See First E-rate Modernization Order, ¶ 162)
At the time, there was debate about how much information was needed to achieve the FCC’s goals. Was it enough to publish the winning bids? Or should all materials be made public, even the losing bids? The FCC understood that publishing all bids could be burdensome, and that “complexity and delay discourage participation and ultimately result in fewer schools and libraries fully investing in needed high-speed broadband connections.” (¶ 55) If there are too many steps, and too much information required, the desire for more oversight and transparency could overtake the need to simplify and streamline the process.
Ultimately, the FCC decided that requiring all bids be uploaded was unnecessary and could even be counterproductive to the health of the program. Instead, the FCC struck a balance between transparency and simplification: only the prices for winning bids would be published, but applicants would still be required to produce copies of all bids, including the losing bids, when requested.
Although we require publication of prices for goods and services purchased by applicants, we decline at this time to require public disclosure of other pricing information, including available pricing from service providers or bid responses. Many commenters argue that submitting bid information is burdensome, and the goods and services selected by applicants should represent the most cost-effective solution for their needs following a competitive bidding process, with price as the primary factor. Therefore, we are persuaded that the current burden to applicants of submitting comprehensive bid information to USAC outweighs any incremental benefit to the public from the publication of prices for non-winning bids, which, by definition, were not the most cost-effective choice. At the same time, we take this opportunity to remind applicants and vendors that they are responsible for the retention of all documents related to their applications, including bids submitted in response to a solicitation, in accordance with our rules. Applicants still may be required to provide all bid responses during PIA review of an application or during an audit. – ¶ 165 (Emphasis added)
In hindsight, the FCC’s decision seems to have struck the right balance and succeeded in accomplishing the desired outcomes. Under the new streamlined, more transparent system, we have seen an increase in competition and a decrease in pricing, just as the FCC had anticipated.
One must wonder what the FCC hopes to accomplish under its proposed new federal procurement system. If increasing the burden and complexity of the E-rate program was not a good idea when it was modernized in 2014, what has changed to make it a good idea now?
If you agree that local purchasing decisions should be managed at the local level, please sign this petition, and let the FCC know.