FCC Seeks Comment on Simplifying, Expanding Tribal E-Rate Eligibility

The FCC is proposing to include in E-Rate tribal colleges that separately function as public libraries.

FCC Seeks Comment on Simplifying, Expanding Tribal E-Rate Eligibility
Screenshot from the FCC's February open meeting

WASHINGTON, February 16, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted at its open meeting Thursday to initiate a proceeding to expand tribal eligibility for the E-Rate program, including allowing certain tribal college libraries to partake in the fund that extends connectivity to libraries that are separate from schools.

The current version of the schools and libraries fund requires that eligible entities be libraries “whose budgets are completely separate from any schools.” The initial intention was to ensure that the limited funds would not be diverted to higher education institutions.

But in identifying a lack of program participation in the tribal community, the commission is proposing to modify the definition to include tribal college libraries that “serve a dual role by servicing the Tribal community as a public library.”

“Many of these Tribal college libraries may be the only library in the community and take on the public library role in addition to being academic libraries,” the commission said in its proposal, noting that it is not proposal to expand the eligibility to tribal colleges or universities that don’t serve as public libraries.

As such, the commission is requesting comment on how to ensure that the funds will not be diverted to other higher education purposes. “Here, would limits on branches make sense or could we rely on other measures, like a requirement that the building be open and accessible to the public?” the commission asks.

Last year, the commission amended language in the program to explicitly include “tribal libraries” in its definition of “libraries” to ensure the participation of those institutions.

The change in definition came after indigenous community leaders said the E-Rate program is not effectively aiding tribal libraries, with some having said that nearly 40 percent of indigenous respondents saying they have not heard of the program. The FCC at that time held virtual listening sessions to hear about the lack of program funding requests from tribal libraries.

Another complaint the FCC heard from those participants was the program was too complicated to apply for.

Simplifying application process

As such, the commission has also proposed Thursday to simplify the application process for E-Rate funding, including potentially simplifying language, reducing the number of forms, and exempting competitive bidding for certain low-cost services. It is also considering extending or having a separate application filing window for tribal libraries.

There are two types of services for the E-Rate program: the first provides connectivity to the institutions while the second provides connectivity within them. The commission did not set a budget for the first type of service, but did set a pre-discount funding floor of $25,000 for the second type of service, with a discount opportunity of up to 85 percent – five percent lower than the 90 percent maximum allowed for the first service.

The commission is now asking if it should increase the funding floor and up the discount maximum to 90 percent for the second service.

Because the initial restrictions on the program were done partly to avoid waste, abuse and fraud, the commission is asking how it can avoid those problems with these new proposals.

The commission also asks commenters to suggest other ways it can improve tribal access to the E-Rate program and to let it know what the largest barriers for tribal libraries and other non-tribal entities are to participate in the program.

Finally, it’s also proposing that a tribal representative sit on the board of directors of the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the Universal Service Fund that includes the E-Rate program.

Comments on the proposals are due 45 days after its publication in the federal register.

In October, the FCC launched a pilot program targeting 20 tribal libraries intended to assist them with the E-Rate program. That included in-person training and assistance with planning, applying and invoicing.

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