Mobile and wireless technology have redefined the educational environment. With these advances school Wi-Fi has become one of the most important resources inside every school and frankly, everyone needs it for their students and teachers to be successful. However, there’s one major challenge, school wireless networks are expensive. So how do you pay for it all? With planning and a little help from E-Rate.
This past year, the FCC overhauled the program after the president called for its modernization outlined in his ConnectED Initiative. E-Rate, which was known before as the Schools and Library Universal Service Support Mechanism, has been in place to make sure that all schools, especially low-income or rural schools, were able to have affordable access to internet services, technology and telecommunications.
However, with the proliferation of mobile devices and wireless network technology the program was in critical need of an update.
The update to the program focused on three areas:
- Making sure that schools and districts have affordable Wi-Fi and broadband
- Maximizing E-Rate spending
- Making the administrative and application process easier, more efficient and faster
With funding year 2015 now over, how can E-Rate benefit your school in 2016?
Making Wi-Fi and Broadband Affordable for all Schools and Districts
Much of the E-Rate foundation has stayed the same with discounts being based on economic need. The program lets schools or entire districts choose the providers and technology that best meet their needs, but they also have to ensure that they are the most cost-effective options.
When the overhaul occurred, the biggest changes were:
- Providing schools with high-speed Wi-Fi access in classrooms through a $1 billion annual commitment.
- Ensuring that E-Rate will fully fund the Wi-Fi needs of schools over the next five years.
- New funding category names—Priority One and Priority Two have become Category One and Category Two. There were also specific changes to both categories and discounts and services were adjusted and eliminated. These various changes were made to spread E-Rate funds more widely.
In order to encourage schools to invest in a stronger broadband infrastructure the new E-Rate program also added additional flexibility, options and access to affordable high-speed broadband. By changing the requirements that had schools receiving E-Rate funding for a one-time upfront construction cost over several years they made it so schools could get E-Rate funding for large upfront construction projects in just one year, beginning in funding year 2015.
Next year, in 2016, there are more changes on the horizon.
- Schools can pay their portion of nonrecurring large construction costs in installments over several years instead of within 90 days of service delivery as was previously required.
- E-Rate funds can be used to lease dark fiber, which can reduce broadband costs.
- Schools/districts can build their own broadband facilities. (only if it is the best, most cost-effective solution)
- Additional E-Rate discounts are available if states agree to help fund high-speed broadband construction.
Maximizing E-Rate Spending
Several rule changes have been implemented to lower the costs of services and equipment. Through price transparency and bulk purchases through a consortium, they are making sure that schools are spending funds in the most efficient manner possible.
Price transparency directs the USAC to post the prices that each applicant pays for technology and services. Now schools can see what other applicants are paying which will allow everyone to better negotiate pricing.
The FCC will also make E-Rate applications from state and regional consortia a priority, encouraging their use, and further driving down prices.
Easier, More Efficient and Faster Administration and Application
Red tape and inefficient systems can hinder application approval. The USAC has worked hard to streamline their process. Some of the changes made are:
- Electronic applications only
- An approved technology plan is no longer required
- New online application features, including drop-down menus and embedded tips to assist applicants
- Streamlining multi-year contract applications
- Adopting a district-wide discount rate instead of building-by-building discount rates
All of the changes made to the E-Rate program continue to optimize the process, making it simpler than ever for schools to procure the funding they need to function and thrive in today's technology-driven K-12 education environment.