Updated program is ‘custom built’ for connectivity in schools.
by | Heather B. Hayes
Heather B. Hayes has been covering technology, business and education topics for more than 20 years and has written more than 2,000 published articles. She lives in Virginia.
It’s a costly endeavor to lay the technology foundation needed for an effective digital teaching and learning environment. Just ask any K–12 school that opted to take the early plunge in building the robust broadband and wireless networks required by today’s mobile devices and digital resources.
Fortunately, schools no longer have to go it alone. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission made major changes to its long-standing E-Rate program. The agency boosted E-Rate’s annual budget from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion and made all K–12 schools eligible for a share of it to ensure that there are enough funds for all schools, not just those characterized as low-income or rural. And, in September, the FCC released its 2017 Eligible Services List.
Most critically, the agency shifted its funding focus to meet the digital goals outlined in President Obama’s ConnectED initiative: Now, instead of helping schools subsidize their telephone bills and basic internet connectivity as it has done since 1997, the E-Rate program is focused on helping schools obtain affordable high-speed broadband connections to campus (known as Category 1 funding) and Wi-Fi equipment and services (known as Category 2 funding) so they can enable high-capacity digital classroom instruction.
The change couldn’t have come at a better time, according to John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an E-Rate consulting firm. “The need is so great for connectivity inside of schools, and the E-Rate program as it’s designed now is custom-built for this,” he says. “It’s a real game changer.”
Slow but Steady
Still, K–12 schools have not applied for E-Rate funds as enthusiastically as expected, with an estimated 10 percent drop in participation in fiscal year 2016. “There’s definitely this sense that schools are leaving money on the table — which they are, quite frankly,” says Amy Passow, business development manager for K–12 at CDW•G.
That may be because E-Rate is complex, deadline-intensive and unforgiving, and schools are just getting up to speed on understanding the new rules and process, and determining how to go about applying.
“Many school officials still tend to view E-Rate as a telecommunications/telephone program, which is being phased out over the next three years, and a lot of them, particularly those at smaller and more rural schools, haven’t fully understood the opportunities available to them now,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).
The program, which is managed by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) and overseen by the FCC, is unique among education funding programs in that it doesn’t grant a bucket of cash to be spent as each school decides, but instead offers a discount on the price of E-Rate eligible products and services based on economic need. For instance, an impoverished school might get an 80 percent discount, while other schools might qualify for only a 40 percent discount.
Similar to a health insurer, USAC requires that schools seek preapproval for all products and services they plan to purchase with E-Rate funds. Invoicing and fund dispersal is done at the end of the process.
Program rules also are specific about what products and services can be purchased with E-Rate money, especially Category 2 funds. Essentially, these are basic firewalls, network routers and switches, wireless access points, cabling, caching services, training and basic installation and startup of E-Rate eligible equipment. It does not cover mobile devices, professional services, applications, digital content or overarching network maintenance.
All of this means that schools must do a lot of upfront work. They need to have a long-term digital strategy and know from the start exactly what they need in the way of technology products and services. Schools also must come up with a funding plan to pay their share of the total network cost, as well as the digital learning necessities that E-Rate doesn’t cover.
“Applying for E-Rate was never easy, but it has gotten exponentially more complex under the modernization order,” says Shari Phillips, president of e2e Exchange, an E-Rate consulting firm.
The situation, she adds, was complicated last year by the introduction of a cumbersome new tool called the E-Rate Productivity Center (EPC), which many schools and even E-Rate consultants struggled to use.
“It’s no longer just about getting your forms filled out and meeting the deadlines,” Phillips says. “It’s doing that upfront research and planning, and making sure the information that you’re submitting is accurate and that the products and services you’re requesting are eligible, timely and truly meet the needs of the school. It’s extremely challenging.”
The good news, says John Harrington, is that USAC is addressing the shortcomings of the EPC tool, and everyone is learning more about how to successfully navigate the process and maximize E-Rate funds.
“The program is not going away,” he states. “It has strong support, and the dollars — more than ever — are really needed. Most important, the process will get easier. It will be easier next year than last, and the year after that it’s going to be even easier.”
Getting More Bang for Your E-Rate Buck
Under the E-Rate program, each K–12 school is eligible to receive a total of $150 per student, multiplied by the school’s discount rate. Fortunately, there are ways to stretch those dollars. The E-Rate modernization order makes this possible in two key ways:
1) Price Transparency: E-rate rules have long dictated that providers charge schools and libraries the lowest available price for their products and services, but until recently, there was really no way to know if they were doing so. The E-Rate modernization order requires that information now be made publicly available through USAC, and several organizations, such as EducationSuperHighway, have taken the data and developed tools for schools to compare prices by provider, geography, district size, product, service and other factors.
“The lead person on E-Rate needs to take the time to be a savvy purchaser and know exactly what other schools are paying for the same products and services,” says Keith Krueger, executive director for CoSN. “If, for example, a broadband provider is charging a school on the other side of the state less per megabit than they’re charging you, then you can go back and demand that same price. And as you get the price down, you’re going to be able to get that much more bandwidth — and that’s important because you’re going to need more and more of that as your digital environment ramps up.”
2) Bulk Purchasing: The E-Rate modernization order made it easier for schools to obtain their funds through a consortium, even giving E-Rate applications from state or regional consortia first priority during the review process. By working with a group, schools can obtain products and services at a lower, volume-based price — but also avoid the headaches associated with the Form 470 process.
That’s because the consortium is responsible for filling out the application and overseeing the competitive bid process. Participating schools only need to perform what’s called a ‘mini-bid’ process. “Once the award is set, a school can go to an approved provider and say, ‘Hey, we want pricing for 10 switches and four access points. You have seven days to respond,’” explains Amy Passow, business development manager for K–12 at CDW•G. “And then the provider gets them the pricing, and the school only needs to fill out the much simpler Form 471 to get approval.”
Some consortia even provide incentives to entice schools to join their effort. For example, eligible schools that leverage North Carolina’s consortium E-Rate bid process are able to more readily access Race to the Top funds and other state grant sources.
Still, there is a potential downside: You’re locked into purchasing only those products and services on the consortium award. If they’re not a fit for your specific needs, you’ll have to undertake your own Form 470 process, says Passow.
Do Your Homework
The No. 1 success factor to obtaining E-Rate funds and leveraging them for the greatest strategic and academic impact is doing quality work before the application process begins. Experts say that schools should adhere to the following best practices:
1) Have a Vision. E-Rate is not just an IT program, it’s a schoolwide program, says Harrington, and that means everybody needs to be involved in upfront soul-searching and planning. “Where do you want to be as a school district three years from now? That’s a discussion that should involve curriculum, facilities and IT, of course, but networks now also impact school security, school management, test taking and more,” he says. “So you’ve really got to get all of those people in a room and figure out your vision for where you want to be — and then consider how E-Rate can play a role in making that vision a reality.”
2) Take Stock. Perform a detailed technology inventory and put together your specific technology plan and network design before starting your E-Rate shopping list, Krueger says. “Too often, schools will start with, ‘Well, E-Rate won’t pay for that, so therefore we can’t do it or we won’t do it. Instead, start with your plan and then look to E-Rate to help you pay for part of it.”
3) Be Strategic. The E-Rate program disperses funds over five years, so schools can get everything in one fell swoop or spread it out over two to five years. Think through how the money can be best used. Do you want to do a major refresh all in one year, or would it be better to do the bulk of your investment in Year 2 and save some money for smaller upgrades in Year 3, and 5?
4) Start Early … The E-Rate process is lengthy, requiring school officials and representatives to pull together the right information, develop a Request for Proposal, perform the mandatory 28-day competitive bidding process, wait for USAC review, and install and test network connections. As a result, schools ideally should begin the process three years before they need their new network in place. “The biggest difficulty most applicants have is not managing the play clock well,” Harrington says. “They need to get started now but also leave a buffer in there for extra challenges and hiccups. That way, they can apply in the first year, get their funding commitment the following year and then go out and install the network so it’s in place in three years.”
5) … But Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself. Don’t move to seek E-Rate money to increase broadband capacity this year if your internal network isn’t yet up to speed — and don’t try to build that high-capacity Wi-Fi if you don’t yet have the funds or policies in place for mobile devices. “The most effective applicants will think through the planning horizon and try to maximize their return on investment of these E-Rate dollars, understanding that whatever they do is going to have to carry them for several years,” Harrington says. “The last thing you want to do is throw all this infrastructure out there and not have your school or teachers prepared or the digital resources and content in place.”
6) Carefully Consider a Refresh. Passow says that schools need to leverage their E-Rate funds strategically when choosing technology, especially those who have to pick and choose because of budget constraints. As an example, many K–12 schools will opt to upgrade their wireless access points over aging switches, but then find that their new investment doesn’t deliver because the older switches are blocking any hope for greater throughput and speed. Routers are another technology that K–12 schools often fail to refresh, but an investment can help increase both bandwidth and network reliability. Another good tip: Upgrade your old firewall to a next-generation firewall, which can better secure the application-based learning systems that are prevalent in today’s digital classrooms.
The program is not going away. It has strong support, and the dollars — more than ever — are really needed.
John Harrington , CEO, Funds for Learning
Help for the Asking
Preparing for and managing the E-Rate application process takes research, lots of patience and attention to detail. Fortunately, there are resources available to help.
Passow suggests that schools start by checking in with their state E-Rate coordinator, who, depending on individual state policy, can provide public schools with E-Rate preparation guides and training resources or recommend an E-Rate consultant.
Nonprofit organizations offer various types of free educational materials and assistance; CoSN’s Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiative, for example, provides guidelines for network design and a checklist for district network planning.
School officials can also reach out to manufacturers and service providers before they begin the application process. This will help officials discover what products and services are available and what new technology upgrades are on the horizon so that they have the best possible information for their Form 470 and request for proposal. “It’s definitely important to do this, but schools have to be careful that they provide all the same information and opportunities to all bidders so that everybody has a fair chance,” says Passow.
Finally, E-Rate consultants are critical for schools that don’t have the time or personnel to take on what is essentially a yearlong — and sometimes full-time — job.
“Very often, administrators or directors are eager to take on the task, but then they’ll have other things come up. It’s so easy to lose sight of those deadlines, and if they do, there’s no grace period — you’ll lose out on your chance for funding that year,” says Phillips, noting that the best E-Rate consultants also are adept at bridging the language gap between the finance and technology departments. “When we’re involved, we become an extension of the team. We can keep up with the deadlines and oversee the competitive bid process to make sure that questions are answered in a timely fashion and everyone gets a fair shot,” she says.
In choosing an E-Rate consultant or service provider, schools should make it a point to choose someone who’s been working with the E-Rate program for seven to 10 years and has strong references, Passow says. “These types of companies have come out of the woodwork since the announcement of these funds, and some of them don’t really know what they’re doing — you’ll end up paying for their mistakes,” she explains. “So ask for recommendations, and make sure you’re working with someone who is high quality and reputable and truly understands the E-Rate program.”