Doug Jones and Kay Ivey write FCC looking for answers about education broadband funds

Senator Doug Jones meets with STAIR students in Birmingham, Ala. (via Twitter)

U.S. Senator Doug Jones joined Governor Kay Ivey in reaching out to Ajit Pai the Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) about Alabama’s request for E-Rate discount funding for broadband.

According to Jones’ press release, “The state of Alabama has requested funds for FY 2016-18 totaling $32,404,608. Of that funding request, $6,705,647 million has been approved by the USAC. The remaining $25,698,961 is pending approval. The USAC has held payments for fifteen months, no new funding commitments have been issued, and the USAC has failed to provide an explanation for withholding E-Rate payments to Alabama.”

According to the FCC website here are the basics of the program:

What benefits are available under the E-rate program?

Eligible schools and libraries may receive discounts on telecommunications, telecommunications services and Internet access, as well as internal connections, managed internal broadband services and basic maintenance of internal connections.

Discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, with higher discounts for higher poverty and rural schools and libraries. Recipients must pay some portion of the service costs.

How does the E-rate program work?

An eligible school or library identifies services it needs and submits a request for competitive bids to the Universal Service Administrative Company. USAC posts these requests on its website for vendors’ consideration. After reviewing its offers, the school or library selects its preferred vendor(s) and applies to USAC for approval for the desired purchases.

Next, USAC issues funding commitments to eligible applicants. When a vendor provides the selected services, either the vendor or the applicant submits requests to USAC for reimbursement of the approved discounts.

The bid request and competitive bidding processes must comply with FCC rules and state and local procurement requirements.

How are requests prioritized?

Funding is allocated first to the highest poverty schools and libraries, then the next-highest poverty applicants, and so on.

Ivey sent her letter on June 1, 2018 though a search of her official website shows that her communications team did not make a public announcement at that time. The letter, which Alabama Today found through a copy of the letter posted online via the Funds for Learning website. Their website describes them as “a professional firm specializing in the federal E-rate funding program. Our mission is to provide high-quality consulting and support services for the needs of E-rate program participants, including preparing and submitting paperwork, and helping our clients to understand and maintain compliance with E-rate rules and regulations.”

Full text of Jones letter:

The Honorable Ajit Pai
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Chairman Pai:

It has come to my attention that the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), an organization under your management, has withheld $32.4 million in E-rate discount funding from the State of Alabama.

As you know, the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Program, or E-Rate program, plays a critical role in providing Alabama schools and libraries with affordable high-speed internet access.

According to information I have received, the State of Alabama has not been paid $6,705,647 that was approved in FY 2016. Further, the State of Alabama has submitted additional requests for FY 2016-2018 totaling $25,698,961. It is my understanding that all of these applications are still pending with no indication whether they will be granted or not.

You have noted that, “Internet access in public schools has almost tripled since E-Rate’s creation, and speeds have grown alongside availability.” This is welcome news because, in today’s economy, internet access is no longer just a luxury. Broadband is as much of a necessity in a classroom as notebooks and pencils. By failing to deliver universal internet, we fail to provide our children with the skills they need to compete for jobs in the 21st century economy.

Simply put, these unexplained delays are inexcusable and they hurt the 1,376 school and library sites and 692,515 students who benefit from E-rate funding and services in Alabama.

I have seen that you have advocated changing the E-Rate program to make it “student-centered.” I certainly agree with you and believe that a great first step would be to keep your promise to provide the funding that is owed to Alabama and approve the pending applications.

I ask that you provide me with an update on the status of the State of Alabama’s approved funding for FY 2016 and of the pending applications for requests for FY 2016-2018 at the earliest opportunity.