New rules would eliminate eRate discounts on eMail, voice mail, and website hosting beginning next year
[Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the new eRate rules and how they will affect schools.]
Beginning with the 2015 funding year, eMail, voice mail, and website hosting no longer will be eligible for eRate support. What will this change mean for schools—and what services exist to help schools reduce these costs?
The eRate offers discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent of the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connectivity to eligible schools and libraries. Now indexed to inflation, the program will supply more than $2.4 billion in discounts this year.
To transform the program into a vehicle that supports broadband, the FCC this summer issued new eRate rules  that set aside $5 billion in funding over the next five years for the internal connections needed to extend broadband access within schools and libraries.
To make this money available for internal broadband connections, however, the FCC has made significant changes to the other kinds of services that are eligible for eRate support.
For instance, voice mail, paging services, and directory assistance no longer will be eligible for eRate discounts beginning next year. This change could have a dramatic effect on school district budgets—and it could force school leaders to reexamine their options for these services.
In its ruling, the FCC noted that many free or low-cost options exist for school eMail and website hosting.
(Next page: Features—and limitations—of some free services)
For instance, Google Apps for Education  includes free school Gmail accounts hosted by Google, along with 30 gigabytes of shared Google Drive storage per user. Microsoft Office 365 Education  includes a free plan (called A2) that includes Microsoft-hosted eMail accounts with up to 50 GB of storage per user.
“Microsoft has long been a committed partner to schools in helping implement technology tools that address their unique needs and meet budget requirements,” said Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s U.S. education business. “Our Office 365 Education A2 plan has been available to education institutions for free since 2012, regardless of their eRate-eligible discount level.”
Many schools have had great success using the free eMail services from these companies.
“Being a Google Apps [user] since 2007 has provided our district quite a few benefits—both in terms of cost and … learning,” said Hank Thiele, assistant superintendent for technology and learning at the Maine 207 Schools in Park Ridge, Ill., during an eSchool News webinar  earlier this year.
Thiele estimated his district has saved more than $780,000 over the last six years by using Google’s free hosted Gmail for students and staff.
Microsoft and Google also offer free website hosting for schools, as do a number of other companies—although most of these tools are more appropriate for teachers and students to create class and group websites than for schools or districts to create comprehensive sites.
While free or low-cost options for school eMail and website hosting do exist, schools already locked into contracts with service providers could face large out-of-pocket expenses next year. And there are limitations to what these free services include, making them unsuitable for many schools’ needs.
In a letter to the FCC last fall, John Carbrey, chief technology officer for school website provider Intrafinity Inc. (operating as SharpSchool ), noted that free website hosting services often lack features such as sufficient data privacy and security measures, or live support. Their legal or contractual terms “may be subject to change at any time, with or without user notice,” he wrote—and most of these services are not geared toward enterprise-level use.
“These apparently free services are never entirely so, whether the additional cost comes by way of subsequent charges by the ‘free’ service provider, onerous or inappropriate conditions of service, or through the additional staffing and other resources that must be provided by the school in order to support and administer these ‘free’ tools,” Carbrey wrote.
Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish Schools in Lake Charles, La., agreed.
Abshire said she understands the rationale behind the FCC’s decision. But “for schools to be able to function, we’ve got to be able to … conduct business,” she said. And that means having a robust web presence.
(Next page: Why Abshire thinks it’s ‘laughable’ that school districts can rely on free website services)
When it comes to operating online, “we’re more sophisticated today than even five years ago,” Abshire said. In her district of 33,000 students and 5,000 employees, students submit homework online, teachers are posting content and interacting with parents, and district officials are handling thousands of electronic transactions.
“You can’t do that with a bunch of free websites,” she said, adding that it’s “laughable” anyone would think so.
Not including eRate discounts, Calcasieu Parish spends about $70,000 a year for enterprise-level website services from Schoolwires . Now, Abshire’s school system will be responsible for this entire cost itself. She referred to the shifting of eRate funding from website hosting to broadband infrastructure as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
As for eMail, Calcasieu Parish hosts its own eMail service using Microsoft Exchange. While the basic Office 365 Education service is free, it doesn’t include the eMail archiving that is required under state law, Abshire noted. A plan that includes eMail archiving, legal hold capabilities, and eDiscovery compliance tools starts at $2.50 per student and $4.50 per staff member, per month.
Jeff Patterson, founder and CEO of Gaggle , which provides a suite of safe, secure communications tools for schools, said the eRate rule change might be an inconvenience for his customers—but it would not affect his company’s business.
“Our school district customers are not looking for low-cost services to keep their students safe,” he said. “Did your local high school football team look for cheaper helmets when they had less money to spend this year on equipment?”
Patterson added: “Our customers want to find the right communication tools … so their teachers can focus on helping their students become capable 21st-century learners.”
Part five of this series will examine other eRate rule changes, including a new way to calculate your discount percentage—which could benefit some school districts while hurting others. Watch www.eschoolnews.com  for more information.