Michigan’s Alpena Public Schools is a medium-sized rural district with 6,000 students and 15 buildings spread out across 620 square miles. Last year, the district applied for and received nearly $600,000—or about $100 per student—in eRate funds.

With up to 30 miles separating some of its buildings, Alpena can appreciate the value of modern telecommunications. And thanks to the eRate, six of the district’s buildings will be connected in a fiber optic wide area network (WAN) by the end of the summer, according to Mark Samp, the district’s director of information technology .

“The eRate allows us to provide every building with the same connectivity features, functions, speed, and access,” Samp said. “If it weren’t for this program, we’d probably have to do a piecemeal implementation of technology in our schools.”

Alpena is in the process of constructing a fiber optic Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network to connect its 15 buildings. The district’s high school will serve as the center of the network and the point for its internet access.

During the first round of the eRate, the district applied for discounts on internal connections and file servers for the six buildings it planned to wire that year, plus the equipment for a new private branch exchange (PBX) phone system and its local and long-distance telephone charges.

The discounts will be applied toward the wiring, routers, switches, and hubs needed to connect each school to the fiber optic WAN and each classroom to the schools’ internet file servers. Alpena plans to run four computer drops per classroom for the students and three more drops per classroom for its teachers, for a total of seven drops per room.

Though the district qualifies for an aggregate discount of 62 percent, four of the buildings it will have wired by the end of the summer qualify for 70 percent discounts and the other two qualify for discounts of 80 percent, Samp said—so the district was fortunate enough to receive funding for internal connections in all six schools last year.

Although leasing the components of a wide area network from a telecommunications carrier qualifies for eRate discounts as well, Alpena opted not to lease its WAN. Instead, the district chose to buy the fiber optic lines and install them itself.

“We decided not to have a continued monthly operating cost by leasing our WAN, even though that cost is eligible for discount,” Samp explained. “We wanted to own the network because we felt that owning the infrastructure would be cheaper over the course of its lifetime than leasing it would be.”

Samp pointed to the potential instability of the eRate as a factor in that decision: If funding is ever eliminated, the district would have to pay a monthly lease charge in full if it chose to lease its wide area network. Instead, the district will apply its first-year discounts toward the cost of owning the WAN.

For Year Two, Alpena applied for discounts to wire an additional six buildings. Within the first three years of the eRate, all 15 buildings will be connected. At that time, the district will turn its sights toward using its fiber optic network to run voice traffic as well, Samp said.

If Alpena gets the $400,000 in discounts it has requested in Year Two of the eRate, it will have received $1 million in funding in only two years—nearly a third of the $3.3 million the district has projected for its capital improvements.

eRate lessons the district has learned, according to Samp:

1. Sign contracts with as few vendors as you can.

Alpena took bids from five vendors during the bidding and selection process. The district settled on IBM to supply all the cabling, electronics, and labor to wire each of the buildings, plus the file servers and student management systems that will run the network. In addition to offering a competitive price, the company was able to supply a total network solution with help from its business partners—thereby giving Alpena a single point of contact for its network and a single vendor from which it will have to track invoices. “That makes the whole process easier for us,” Samp said.

2. Allow adequate time to apply.

Start early and don’t rush, Samp recommended. Plan well in advance for what you think you’ll need, so when the window opens you’re ready to submit a Form 470 and start the bidding process. “We spent hours and hours getting ready for this process—but it was very much worth the effort,” Samp said. Starting early will allow you to read the forms carefully and make sure all the numbers are in the right columns before you have to submit your application.

From the experience of applicants in the first two years of the eRate, it’s clear that you must get your application in to the SLD within the filing window to have any hope of funding. That means making sure all supporting materials are included with your application—and if you file online, it means making sure you mail your signature block, discount calculation grid, and other supporting materials on time also.

3. Seek additional sources of funding as well.

This is important because eRate funding can’t be counted on necessarily to cover everything you ask for—particularly for schools and districts that qualify for discounts below 70 percent. Alpena also applies for state grants through the Michigan Department of Education each year, such as the state’s allocation of federal Technology Literacy Challenge Fund monies, and it looks to partner with technology companies and local foundations to further supplement its technology funding.