Just before the winter holidays, USAC announced that the Funding Year (FY) 2018 Form 471 Filing Window will run from Thursday, January 11 through Thursday, March 22. As this is the shortest 471 Filing Window ever, applicants who have not yet filed their Form 470 should begin that process with a real sense of urgency.
Keeping in mind that a Form 470 must be filed for at least 28 days before a winning bid may be selected and a Form 471 filed, and that after that 28 day window closes you will need to get your contracts for services signed and approved, the clock is ticking!
For those who are about to start their Form 470, here are five critical things to keep in mind:
1. Only ask for what you want and need: If you want to obtain your Internet Access and WAN circuits over a fiber optic network, then only use the Service Categories that include the word ‘Fiber:’ Leased Lit Fiber, Dark Fiber, or Self-Provisioned Fiber. If you also ask for “Bundled IA & Transport” you will be required to consider any non-fiber bids you receive.
In order to make sure that you are filing correctly, USAC posted a ‘cheat sheet’ in December that shows you which service categories should be used for various types of service; you can find that document here.
2. Plan for the future: When entering the minimum and maximum bandwidth required for your Internet Access and WAN circuits and services, keep in mind that your bandwidth needs will almost certainly grow substantially over the next 3 to 5 years, which is the average length of a contract for those types of service. Per the 2014 E-rate Modernization Orders, the FCC’s long term bandwidth goals are 1 Mbps per student for Internet Access and 10 Mbps per student for WAN circuits.
The ‘Maximum Bandwidth’ listed on your Form 470 should, at minimum, reflect these goals. Just remember that putting those numbers on your 470 does not commit you to obtaining service at that level; it’s just telling bidders that their solution needs to give you the ability to upgrade to those bandwidth levels during the life of your contract. If you are pursuing state matching funds for your project, your maximum bandwidth must meet or exceed the FCC’s long term goals.
3. Give the vendors sufficient information: One of the keys to a successful procurement process is receiving multiple, competitive bids from which to choose your new services. You will receive more and better bids from vendors if you provide complete, detailed information about the services you want both on your Form 470 and using an attached Request For Proposals (RFP) document; please note that RFPs are required if you are seeking a Dark Fiber or Self-Provisioned Fiber solution; for all other services including Leased Lit Fiber an RFP is optional but recommended.
If you would like support with this, take advantage of the up-to-date, comprehensive RFP templates available on our website.
Essentially, the less up-front research and work you require a vendor to do in order to respond to your bid, the greater chance that they will take the time to submit a complete response.
4. Maintain an open and fair competitive bidding process: Once you post your Form 470 and RFP, you must wait at least 28 calendar days before selecting a winning bidder and entering into a contract. During that 28 day bidding window, be very careful about how and when you communicate with vendors.
If you provide any new information, however minor, to one vendor, you must make sure that it is made available publicly by uploading the new information as an addendum to your RFP so that all interested vendors may use that information (if you did not file an RFP with your Form 470, this means you must abandon your original Form 470 and refile with the new information included).
Most crucially: if you do post new information to your Form 470, you must restart the 28-day bidding window to allow vendors to utilize the new information; failure to do so will result in denial of funding. In regards to a fair process, make sure that you are consistent and open in your bid evaluation; many applicants are denied because they are found to have used different bid evaluation criteria than those listed on their 470 and/or RFP. You can find some very useful tips from USAC on navigating this part of the procurement process here.
5. Keep good records! The Form 470 and resulting procurement process are the parts of the E-rate application cycle that cause the most trouble for applicants. Because errors on a Form 470 are not correctable, and because your entire application process rests on doing a fair and open competitive bidding process, any mistakes on the 470 or during procurement can be ‘fatal’ and result in a denial of your funding.
Make sure that you document EVERYTHING – any correspondence with vendors, the procurement guidelines and rules you will be following, your decision-making process for bid evaluations, anything pertaining to your application. Even if you only receive one bid, make sure to memorialize your decision to accept that bid in writing.
If you gather all of the information you need beforehand, have a good understanding of the services you need and how to properly file for them, and double-check your Form 470 before submitting it, you are well on your way to a successful procurement process. Good luck, and Happy New Year!