Written by Paul Harding
The mission of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLBC) is to promote public policies which improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries, healthcare providers, other anchor institutions and their surrounding communities.
The purpose of attending the 2016 SHLB conference was multi-fold:
1) To be better acquainted with the new E-Rate program rules, regulations, and federal guidelines.
2) To connect with FCC advisors and attorneys in order to better facilitate the current fiber optic project in Yakutat.
3) To develop a network of business and advisory peers that can assist in the complicated process of navigating ‘E-Rate waters’.
4) To promote the current fiber optic project in Yakutat in order to facilitate the RFI and RFP process.
5) To better assess the fiber optic project master plan for Yakutat by means of openly discussing Yakutat’s special geographic and financial hurdles with business leaders, FCC Advisors, FCC attorneys, and technical administrators.
6) To better understand all the nuances of the procurement process within the E-Rate, USAC and FCC arena.
While there were a number of plenary sessions and workshops offered during this conference, it was the workshops that yielded the majority of useful information. As such, I will only highlight some of the more interesting and notable issues that came up.
E-Rate and Fiber Build-Out workshop
This particular workshop was an amazing insight into USAC’s development and operationalization of the E-Rate process in toto. Everything from how to issue an RFP, evaluating competing bids, and structuring one’s application to maximize the chance for approval was covered in depth. This particular workshop was quite valuable as the lead writer of the E-Rate rules and regulations, Chas Eberle (Attorney Advisor, FCC), was present and available for questions. Also on the board was Joe Freddoso (Advisor to USAC).
Of the many topics covered, the primary tenets of what I found to be of interest revolved around the basic notions of:
• Cost defensibility
• Cost efficacy as it intersects with functionality
• Value to/for a community vs. cost effectiveness
• Cost reasonableness vs. a quality build, all against the backdrop of the notion of ‘community benefit’ and ‘projected community growth’.
Financing and Fiber Construction Build vs. Buy: What are we in for once we ask this question?
The primary discussion during this workshop centered on ‘cost value vs. community benefit’. E-Rate’s central focus in bringing fiber to communities is the ‘lowest possible cost’, and this issue came up many times during this workshop. And while there was much discussion regarding what community benefit was derived from narrowly defining the cost allocation of a project, the usual response from the board was, “those are the rules.” Although seemingly unhelpful, this sort of response generated yet more discussion regarding the FCC guidelines for the E-Rate program such that the principle attorneys later remarked that they would need to revisit some of the more restrictive guidelines and review their utility. Despite the overwhelming time spent on this issue, there was time allotted for discussing the different types of builds that are permissible through E-Rate: dark vs. lit, self-provisioned vs. leased, priority 1 vs. priority 2.
Ask an E-Rate Attorney
Given the previous discussions that had be circulating in previous workshops, the clear point of contention for most attendees was the issue of cost efficacy vs. community value. While much of the time was spent attempting to pick apart E-rate’s cost allocation process by getting FCC advisors and USAC attorneys to voice an explicit equation by which to determine the intersection of community value and cost reasonableness, ultimately USAC attorneys begrudgingly ceded that there must be a cost defensibility. When questioned further on the meaning of this phrase, one of the attorneys simply stated that the cost of any project must be able to be defended given the number of anchor organizations and people served. It was later decided amongst attendees that your ability to argue a case need merely be par with the cost of the project and given the how many organization and people are served.
Following the SHLB conference, I was able to spend about an hour with Mr. Freddoso (Advisor to USAC), Kela Halfmann (E-Rate Coordinator, SERRC), and John Harrington (CEO of Funds for Learning). During this time I was able to discuss the current geological and fiscal hurdles that Yakutat faces and ask how we might best work around/through some of these issues given the parameters of the E-Rate program guidelines. In Addition, we discussed additional funding through organizations that support the development of telecommunications infrastructure – i.e., USDA, Health Connect Fund, Broadband USA, and Community Connect. There was also some discussion regarding the master plan for the fiber optic project in Yakutat and plentiful reasons I ought to consider narrowing the scope of the project to better ensure our success in bringing fiber to the community.
I also spent much time with talking with individuals from the FCC, USAC and SERRC regarding the procurement process and the necessary strategies for getting companies to come to the table and bid on an RFP. There was also much discussion on whether or not a pre-meeting with potential builders/vendors could yield any results in conjunction with either an RFI or RFP.
I was lucky enough to garner the attention of a publicist who had much advice for me regarding the RFP process. We discussed at length one of the on-going problems that Yakutat tends to have given the small size of our town and the limited number of vendors we have in town as a result of our population: monopolies. A number of promising suggestions were made on how to better navigate the RFP process on a project of this magnitude such that we are able to ensure we find ourselves with very few bids
After having discussed the logistical issues that Yakutat is facing in the technological, geographic and economic arenas, I have decided to modify the fiber optic master plan to better demonstrate an understanding of the complexities that this project faces. As such, I will immediately dissolve the current consortium between Hoonah, Yakutat, Pelican and Gustavus. I will, then, set my focus to creating a consortium between CBY, YTT, the school, clinic and, potentially, a library. Following this, I will prepare and submit an RFI that will attempt to yield information on Yakutat’s current distance from the pre-existing fiber line, cost for connecting to said fiber line (the build), and cost of service. Additionally, given the structure of the new consortium which will now include in-eligible E-rate participants, I will have E-rate determine what percentage of the project they will fund. With this information in hand I can better determine what amount of monies will be required to satisfy the balance of this project. With this new configuration, the fiber plan will more adequately fit the cost reasonableness of a project of this size and will ensure our success during the E-Rate funding process.