FCC Enacts Measures to Encourage Greater Participation by Tribal Applicants in the E-Rate Program

On July 21, 2023, the FCC issued a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking1 regarding steps to encourage greater participation by eligible Tribal applicants in the E-Rate program. The E-Rate program provides high speed internet to libraries and elementary and secondary schools at a discounted rate of 20% – 90% off of eligible equipment and services, which are divided into category one services (which provide connectivity to the schools and libraries) and category two services (which provide connectivity within them).

While the Commission has engaged in outreach efforts in the past, it also recognized that Tribal communities still encounter barriers that limit access to the E-Rate program, and only 12% of Tribal libraries have ever applied for E-Rate funding. Accordingly, in its Report and Order the Commission adopted the following initiatives:

The Commission will now make Tribal college and university (“TCU”) libraries, which were previously ineligible for E-Rate support, eligible to participate in the E-Rate program when they also serve as a public library in their community.

In order to streamline E-Rate application process:
There will be a competitive bidding exemption for libraries seeking E-Rate support for category two equipment or services that total a pre-discounted amount of $3600 or less in a single funding year, allowing libraries to purchase low-cost services and equipment without filing an FCC Form 470 to solicit bids.
The Commission increased the maximum discount rate for category two services for Tribal libraries to 90% from 85%.
Libraries no longer need to conduct cost allocations to exclude costs associated with ineligible uses when at least 90% of an applicant’s requested Internet service is being used for eligible purposes.

To further strengthen the Commission’s relationship with Tribal nations:
The Commission established a formal definition of “Tribal” within the E-Rate program to better identify those Tribal applicants seeking E-Rate funding.
A new seat on the USAC Board of Directors was created to represent the interests of Tribal communities.
The Commission directed USAC to provide additional training and outreach throughout the application, invoicing, and post-commitment processes.

The Commission also issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on several other issues related to the E-Rate program, including:

Whether to allow all eligible multi-year software-based services that are purchased with category two equipment to be reimbursed uniformly in the same manner, as the current treatment causes confusion in the bidding process.
Whether to adopt measures to ease transitioning services between two providers during the same funding year.
Ways for USAC to determine whether services from multiple providers is duplicative.
Implementing fewer competitive bidding requirements and less rigorous review for funding requests under $10,000.
Whether to allow applicants to seek bandwidth increases in between E-Rate funding cycles.
Whether to implement changes to FCC Form 470 to streamline the competitive bid process and reduce confusion.
How to deal with “spam bids.”
Potential ways to streamline the discount rate validation for E-Rate applicants.
Whether there are other college or university libraries, similar to the TCU libraries, that act as a public library in their community.
Whether to modify the invoice filing deadline extension rule and ways to streamline the E-Rate invoicing and disbursement process.
Changes to several definitions that may be causing confusion to applicants.

Comments and Reply Comments will be due 45 days and 75 days after publication in the Federal Register, respectively. If you are interested in filing Comments or discussing this further, please contact Dee Herman at [email protected] or Shannon Forchheimer at [email protected].

[1] Schools and Libraries Universal Support Mechanism, CC Docket No. 02-6, Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (July 21, 2023).