The second round of the eRate has begun. That means it’s time to re-sharpen your skills on those Forms 470 and 471.
The good news is that they’re exactly the same forms as the last go-round. The SLC has decided that keeping these forms the same will create continuity in the application process, both for schools and for the SLC. If you spent any time working with the forms last spring, you’ll be able to draw upon that experience to help you out the second time.
The bad news is that these forms are exactly the same as the last go-round. If you remember those worn-out SLC instruction sheets full of hand-written question marks, circles, arrows, and underlines, then you know what to expect this year.
To make your experience a little smoother, here are some things you should consider when applying.
Make your Form 470 as comprehensive as your technology plan allows
You can’t request eRate discounts on your Form 471 for services that don’t appear on your Form 470–so make sure your Form 470 includes requests for as many services as you think you’ll need.
For example, if you file a Form 470 without indicating a desire to purchase internet access, you won’t be able to request a discount on an internet-related service that you later procure and submit on a Form 471.
By requesting as many services as you think you can potentially procure, you’ll open up more options on what you eventually can request on your Form 471. But remember that good faith is important here as well, since vendors will expend resources in giving you proposals and quotes on services that you check off on your Form 470. You’ll also have to expend resources answering vendors’ questions and reviewing proposals.
Check off as many services as necessary to leave yourself options, and as many as will be worth your time and that of vendors. If you decide to leave out a service because you have no plan for obtaining it, but then something too-good-to-miss comes along, you can always submit another Form 470 for this type of service. The risk here is that the 28-day waiting period for this second Form 470 may push you outside the application window, putting your request for funding in jeopardy.
Weigh multi-year vs. single-year contracts
The eRate program allows for multi-year contracts as long as they are entered into under the SLC’s competitive-bidding requirements (an exception exists for multi-year contracts signed before the SLC web site first became operational in Jan. 1998). That is, you must request the service on a Form 470, observe the 28-day web posting and waiting period, and review bids and proposals from vendors.
Once you sign a multi-year contract, though, you can request funding in future years simply by submitting a Form 471 against this same contract, until the contract expires.
By not having to submit a Form 470 and wait 28 days for this same service in future years, you can expedite your future applications–which could be a big advantage in a first-come, first-served process.
On the other hand, it takes more commitment and may take more effort to negotiate a multi-year contract. Since eRate funding isn’t guaranteed from year to year, you should consider the financial commitment a multi-year contract would require as well.
Vendors may be able to help with flexible terms and conditions, like a termination clause that gives you an out if eRate funding is denied. Work with your vendors to design terms and conditions that create a win-win situation for you both.
Develop a strategy for internal connections
Back in June, the FCC revised the funding priority on eRate applications. According to the new rules of priority, telecommunications services and internet access will be funded first, and whatever money is left over will fund internal connections.
Anticipating that this leftover amount won’t cover the demand, though, the FCC decided to fund internal connections on the basis of need. Thus, the program will fund internal connections for applicants who qualify for 90 percent discounts first, then 80 percent, and so on, until the money runs out.
As you prepare to apply for the second round of discounts, you’ll want to adjust your eRate planning in light of those changes in funding priority.
If you’ll be applying for discounts as an individual school or library and you qualify for an 80 or 90 percent discount, your chance of getting funding for internal connections is pretty good.
In this case, your application strategy can focus on securing access to all the resources necessary to make effective use of those connections.
For example, if you ask for funding to wire 50 classrooms, the SLC will want to see that you have a firm plan for making effective use of that wiring before it approves your request. You’ll need to show that you’ve budgeted for, or plan to secure, a commensurate amount of desktop PCs, software, electrical capacity, teacher training, etc.
On the other hand, if your discount level is below 70 percent, your chance of getting funding for internal connections is relatively low.
In this case, you may want to calculate the amount of savings that you’ll realize over the next few years from discounts on telecommunications services and internet access, and earmark those current and future savings toward funding your own internal connection project.
This assumes that you’ll continue to budget for those items at full amount, and reap the savings when the eRate does kick in.
Work with your vendors to design a payment plan that allows you to start installing the wiring today while spreading payments over time. As the savings start to materialize, you can use them to pay for the wiring.
If you’ll be filing as a district or consortium, be prepared for the possibility that some of your schools may get funding for internal connections while others will not. Consider the impact this inequity may have on your instructional programs.
For example, if your lesson plans will require students to access educational resources from a network (either at the local level or on the internet), how will those in schools that don’t get eRate money for wiring accomplish this task? How will you address the technology divide between one eighth-grader versus another, just because their respective middle schools happen to have different discount levels?
There is also the technical issue. How should you design your district’s telecommunications infrastructure if you can’t be certain how many schools, and therefore how much data traffic, will be hooking up to that infrastructure?
Your vendors may be able to help here. Ask them to develop a “scalable” network design that allows you start at any size and easily expand as more of your schools connect into the district’s infrastructure, whether through eRate or other funding sources.
A good network designer should be able to design a network that can be deployed today for your high-discount schools and which will act as the backbone for your other schools to connect to in the future.
Your district may be able to afford the incremental costs of connecting additional schools even without the eRate, due to the economies of scale afforded by a scalable network. That is, a large network, through economies of scale (volume purchase, shortened implementation time, reduced overhead, vendor pricing promotions, etc.) can cost less than the sum of ten smaller ones.
Encourage your vendors to come up with innovative designs. With alternatives to choose from, you can select the one that best addresses the issues caused by inequities in the funding of internal connections.