When making an E-rate application, your district should focus on updating wifi and equipment, as well as boosting schools’ internal connections.
By Wayne D’Orio, School Leaders Now senior editor
During a recent conversation about all things tech with Nathan Mielke, he said something casually that actually sums up the state of technology in education today. “I have no idea what’s going to come out tomorrow, but it’s likely to require more bandwidth,” he mused.
Of course the director of technology services for Wisconsin’s Hartford Union High School is correct. The amount of bandwidth schools and districts need continues to grow. Twenty-two percent of districts expect bandwidth needs to double in the next three years, according to John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning.
And that growth is directly proportional to the importance of the federal E-rate program. Even with the recent boost in funds to a robust $4 billion a year, Harrington says districts need to think proactively about the future of their networks. “The majority of wifi networks will need to be replaced in the next three years,” he says. Wireless access points that are four years old also need replacement.
The E-rate application process will begin this winter, with deadlines expected sometime in April, he says. Because of the change in funding and other rule changes, districts need to strategize their applications.
The biggest change in the FCC program, besides the amounts awarded, is funds can now pay for internal campus connections. Past funding would allow districts to create high-speed connections to schools, but not bolster that connection within the school. Starting last year, E-rate set a target to spend $1 billion of its funds on internal connections. The fund also is phasing out some legacy services and reducing the spending on voice services by 20 percent each year.
“This is how education content is delivered [now],” Harrington says. Tests are taken online and field trips can be conducted from within a classroom; more mundane tasks such as grading and attendance all rely on strong internal internet connections.
Harrington’s company recently completed its sixth annual survey about the federal program. The good news is any district which needs funding can get it, although there are caps dependent on a school’s population. But districts have to wait five years to reapply for a campus, so the program now prioritizes planning your E-rate application. In the past, Harrington notes leaders had to “shoot for the moon” by listing all their schools’ needs. Now districts can target specific locations and needs without a fear that there won’t be enough money in future years.
The federal online portal that districts use to apply for funds got poor ratings. Not surprisingly, the amount of districts using a consultant for its E-rate applications increased. Last year, six of 10 applicants used a consultant, compared to just four in ten in fiscal year 2011.
Also, the speed of the data lines in question rose dramatically. In fiscal 2015, of schools requesting funds, 22,200 featured data pipes of 1 GBPS. In fiscal 2016, that number jumped to 47,300. The actual amount of money the program doled out last year decreased 12 percent, proving 2015’s funding increase was able to handle a backlog of needs.