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FCC Chairman Wants E-Rate Application Process Improved

FCC-Ajit-Pai-blog.jpg
New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is not happy with the way the federal government is running the E-rate program.

In a scathing letter sent this week to the CEO of the Universal Service Administrative Company, Pai describes "serious flaws" in the group's management of the application process for the E-rate, which provides billions of dollars in subsidies each year to help schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services.

As a result of problems with a new online portal, Pai said, many schools and libraries are being prevented from getting funding for which they are eligible.

The portal, called EPC, short for E-Rate Productivity Center, was supposed to streamline the application process. In addition to causing delays for applicants, the tool is significantly over budget, the chairman wrote, saying an initial $19 million price tag could now balloon to more than $60 million.

"Despite assurances from prior FCC leadership that these problems were being addressed, they appear to have persisted, to the detriment of students, library patrons, and taxpayers across the country," Pai's letter reads.

He asked USAC to commit to fixing the E-Rate Productivity Center system, be more transparent in reporting problems to the FCC, and identify alternative ways of assisting E-rate applicants who run into problems. Pai wants a plan by May 18.

John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla.-based consulting group that helps hundreds of school districts apply for E-rate funds, agreed that the current application process is unnecessarily burdensome, but said he doubts there is an easy fix.

"I am encouraged that Chairman Pai is taking a close look at the situation," Harrington said. "I suspect that the answers will not be found within USAC alone, but at a more systemic level."

The fate of the E-rate program has become a source of growing concern for many schools and libraries.

Under former Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, the commission in 2014 overhauled and expanded the program, much to the delight of many education groups.

A commissioner at the time, Pai, a Republican, voted against the overhaul. After being appointed chair in January, he quickly quashed an internal FCC report detailing the E-rate's success.

One of Pai's central critiques of the program has long been its onerous application process.

"So what does the Order do to streamline the bureaucracy? Very little," he wrote in his dissenting opinion to the December 2014 modernization order.

Schools and libraries would likely applaud a simpler application process for the program.

But despite Pai's repeated statement that he believes the E-rate is "worth fighting for," there is growing concern that he might also try to roll back spending, and/or institute changes in the way E-rate funding decisions are made. 


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