In May, the FCC established deep discounts on a wide range of telecommunications services for the nation's libraries and schools. Even though applications for the Universal Service Fund Program are not yet available, libraries can, and should, be preparing now. At stake is the opportunity to obtain discounts of 20 to 90 percent on commercially available telecommunications services effective January 1, 1998. The discounts also will apply to network cabling, hardware (routers, hubs, network file servers), network software, installation, and maintenance costs. Training costs are also discountable but the training must relate to telecommunications use, not information content.
At a minimum, a library should begin now to do the following things: 1) determine probable eligibility, 2) locate their appropriate state agency, and 3) prepare a telecommunications plan.
Eligibility Determination--In order to be eligible for a Universal Services Fund grant a library must meet the definition for eligibility of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). It may be a public, research, or private library. However, among other things, LSTA requires that the library is non-profit and not part of an institution of higher education. School libraries are eligible, but the school must meet the eligibility requirement of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Schools with endowments of more than $50 million are not eligible.
Consortia of libraries also may apply, but discounts may only be allocated to those members whose eligibility under the program has been determined individually. (The main advantage of acting as a consortium would be to increase bargaining power with suppliers and thus secure lower prices overall.)
The amount of the discount is determined by the economic disadvantage of an area. The percentage of students in a school district who are eligible for the national school lunch program is the major factor in calculating the discount level. A library must ascertain this percentage in the area it serves. Public libraries must make this determination for each school district in which their branches are located.
Libraries should also document the cost of local data communications services. Libraries in rural areas will normally find telecommunications costs to be much higher than libraries in urban areas. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission has already determined that rural areas are high cost by definition, therefore, it has set rural discount rates at five to ten percent above urban discount rates. However, eligibility for the national school lunch program is the major factor in determining the discount level.
State Agency Contact-Each state is required to adopt a plan for universal service before any library or school can receive a discount under the Universal Service Fund. Every library which believes it may be eligible under the program should contact its state library agency to determine whether a plan has been completed, or when it is expected to be completed, and which state agency is developing the plan. In most states it is the public utility commission which is drafting the plan. If the state library agency does not appear to be fully informed, a state's PUC should be contacted directly.
Once the state plan is in place, the telecommunications plans of libraries are to be certified. Guidelines for the certification process should be determined so that they may be reflected in the actual drafting of a library's plan.
Drafting the Plan-The plan should describe the library and the area it serves, with specific reference to the percentage of students eligible for the national school lunch program and documentation about the area's urban-rural classification. A library should itemize all of the telecommunications hardware and software in place, and that which is needed. It should quote rates for the telecommunications services currently being purchased, and what is needed.
The plan should detail how the telecommunications technology is to be used, such as the connection of branches to an automated library system, linking libraries in a consortia, providing staff and patron access to the Internet, etc.
The library should update the information annually as it will need to apply again each year.
Good general sources for information about the program are the home page of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy at http://www.als.org/oitp~ univserv.html/, the home page of the Federal Communications Commission at http://www.fcc.gov/learnet/, and the home page of the U.S. Department of Education at http://www.ed.gov/Technology/.