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E-rate can (still) help K12 districts connect

Schools can seek E-rate funding to install high-speed data connections between buildings ... which is cost-effective

The E-rate program, which is entering its 20th cycle and is worth about $4 billion, is still giving. It can still help districts connect their school buildings to the internet—unbeknownst to some leaders, says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning consulting firm.

Almost all of the physical infrastructure necessary to wire a school building for internet access qualifies for E-rate funding. Eligible expenses include wireless access points, data cabling, network switches and other related items such as conduits and connectors.

District administrators can also seek E-rate funding to install high-speed data connections between their school buildings. Most districts choose to connect their buildings via a wide area network, and then lease one central connection to the internet, Harrington says.

Such connectivity arrangements are cost-effective because they allow all schools to share a single internet connection. They also enhance network security because a centralized firewall and other security measures monitor the internet traffic flowing throughout the district.

And such arrangements keep all internal communication within the district. For example, an e-mail between a few teachers never leaves the district’s network.

“For many years, the E-rate program helped only a small number of schools—about 1 in 20 schools could receive those funds,” Harrington says.

“When the program was reformed [in late 2014], all school sites could qualify for some funding for internal connections. But a lot of district administrators I’ve talked to recently haven’t really gotten that memo. They don’t think it can help them with their hardware needs, and that’s not true.”

So far, only one in four schools have taken advantage of the hardware funding under E-rate, he adds.

Funding for leasing connections

Also, in the past, districts had to lease data connections between buildings, typically from a local phone or cable company, even if those buildings were across the street from each other, Harrington says. The connections are in the form of physical cables (either copper or fiber optics) that run between physical addresses within the community.

Now districts can use E-rate funding to lease such connections, or they can seek E-rate funds to install a high-speed fiber optic cable themselves. In most cases, those wires are hung on telephone poles around the community (which is the least expensive route), or the cables are buried under or alongside city roads, Harrington says.

Need for speed

Reform in the E-rate program in 2014 raised the annual spending cap by more than 60 percent, to $3.9 billion per year, and shifted the program’s focus from legacy voice technologies to broadband and Wi-Fi.

Districts will have access to more than $4 billion in 2017 for connectivity upgrades. Meanwhile, the number of E-rate requests for high-speed internet has doubled since last year, according to Funds for Learning’s “2016 E-Rate Trends Report.”

Other notable points of the report:

  • 74 percent of districts surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they had faster internet connections because of the E-rate program.
  • 62 percent of districts surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the E-rate competitive bidding process lowers the prices that vendors quote for providing services.
  • 87 percent of districts agreed or strongly agreed that E-rate funding is vital to their internet connectivity goals.

See 2016 E-rate Trends for the full report.