As schools and libraries are gearing up to apply for discounts through the federal eRate program, officials hired by the FCC are trying to streamline the complex funding process, reports eSchool News.
The deadline to apply to the $2.25 billion program is close, and school and libraries have about a month to prepare. In the past, the program has been racked by allegations of fraud and abuse. Officials are attempting to rectify its past mistakes by simplifying the application process and streamlining customer service.
There is a newly revamped website with an online application process, which should cut down on paperwork. A new online Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement (BEAR) form allows to receive discounts from the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co. when they opt to pay for eRate-eligible services in full up front.
This year there will be more emphasis on outreach and training for applicants and service providers.
"If people know exactly what the rules are and what things are new, then they won't likely find themselves in an appeal situation," said SLD Vice President Mel Blackwell.
Security and fraud were past issues that loomed large. This year eRate administrators say they plan to conduct as many as 160 site-based audits throughout the year. Plus an additional 100 educational site visits will provide applicants with individualized training and support.
"People used to be literally afraid of the program," said Della Mathis, state eRate coordinator for Alaska. "They dreaded filling out applications for fear that they would do something that would cost their schools or cost their libraries dearly." Now, Mathis said, "a lot of that fear is gone."