All technology applications are not created equal. Especially when it comes to the eRate, and the very specific rules that determine whether or not you get a discount.

To maximize your eRate funding (and reduce your out-of-pocket expenses), you need to think of how your technology purchases fit in with the program’s rules. That means considering not only the up-front costs, but also the ongoing or hidden costs of a particular solution as well.

When planning your next application, consider these two solutions. They could end up saving your district thousands of dollars in hidden or ineligible charges.

1) Centrex (vs. PBX phone systems)

Back in the 1980s, when Judge Green’s decision divested Ma Bell, the telecommunications marketplace as we knew it radically changed. Suddenly, anyone could own their own private branch exchange (PBX), and many districts indeed saw that as the preferred route. Get your own PBX, install it, and you’d have control over your own telecommunications destiny.

PBX is a private telephone network used within an enterprise such as a school or district. Users of the PBX share a certain number of outside lines for making external calls. Installing a PBX is much less expensive than connecting an external line to every telephone in the district—plus it’s easier to call someone within a PBX, because you only have to dial a three- or four-digit number.

Under the rules of the eRate, PBX is eligible for discount in the category of “internal connections.” But first-year applicants who qualified for discounts of 69 percent or below weren’t funded for their internal connection requests, and with this year’s demand exceeding the available funding, it’s likely that a similar situation will occur in Year Two as well.

In light of the funding priorities, if you’re thinking of installing a PBX system, you might want to consider purchasing centrex instead. Short for “central office exchange service,” centrex is a type of PBX service in which switching occurs at a local telephone station instead of your school or district. Typically, your regional Bell Operating Company (rBOC) owns and manages all the communications equipment necessary to implement the centrex and then sells the various services to your school or district.

Most school districts are distributed across a county or region. This is exactly the type of customer footprint a regional telecommunications provider is geared to service. Through the use of trunk lines that interconnect the buildings in your district, you can create a “virtual” private network for voice services with centrex. Centrex can provide four-digit dialing, call forwarding, voice mail, and other PBX features designed to make telephone use as simple as it should be.

One advantage of centrex is that you don’t have to buy any hardware, software, or other equipment. Its reliability also is high—about as high as any telecommunications service offered today. The rBOCs are required by law to offer “lifeline” services: that is, the centrex system has to be up and running all the time. And when compared to the overhead it takes to support a PBX of your own, centrex is competitively priced as well.

With PBX, there are several hidden costs. First, you have to buy the system—certainly not a cheap proposition. Then, you have to configure and install the system, or hire someone to do it. Then you have to maintain it—seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That takes trained technicians. If you want to extend the service, like adding more phone lines, you have to do it yourself. If you want to add a service, like voice mail, again, you either do it yourself or call in expensive consultants. Insurance, repair, liability, security, training—the costs mount. The ease of use and reliability of a service through a telecommunications provider make centrex an economical choice when you look at all the hidden costs of supporting your own PBX service.

Most importantly, unlike PBX, centrex is eligible for discount as a telecommunications service—a “priority one” service. No matter what your discount level is, you’re virtually guaranteed to receive a discount on its purchase.

2) Wireless LANs (vs. routers, hubs, wiring, etc.)

The components of wired local area networks (LANs), such as routers, hubs, switches, and cabling, are eligible for eRate discounts under the category “internal connections”—as is the cost of installing them. But the cost of opening walls, removing asbestos, resealing and repainting the walls is not eligible for eRate support. Many schools are finding they must spend a great deal of their own out-of-pocket money retrofitting their school buildings to support the new infrastructure.

Older buildings are particularly vulnerable to such add-on expenses. Besides physical obstacles such as a building’s layout or a brick wall, older buildings often harbor costly surprises in the form of asbestos. As long as asbestos remains hidden away behind the walls of older buildings, it doesn’t have to be removed—but as soon as a wall is opened and asbestos is discovered, a school is required by law to remove it.

Depending on your needs and how you plan to deploy technology in the classroom, wireless technologies could provide a cost-effective solution that eliminates many of the hidden and ineligible costs associated with wired networks.

The basic communications components of wireless LANs, like their wired counterparts, are eligible for discounts as “internal connections.” These include the circuit cards, antennas, and bridges necessary to transmit wireless signals from point to point—but not the handsets, network interface cards, or laptop computers that receive and translate the signals at the user’s end.

Many vendors offer wireless LAN solutions in the form of mobile carts that can be wheeled from classroom to classroom. IBM, for example, offers a “wireless ThinkPad cart” that stores up to 32 ThinkPad laptops and contains a built-in wireless access point from Symbol Technologies and a built-in 10/100 Ethernet hub.

You plug the cart into a classroom’s network outlet to connect it to the school’s network file server, then distribute the laptops to students, who can communicate to the internet through signals sent to the cart’s wireless access point from networking cards that fit into the laptops’ PC-MCIA card slots. Besides serving as the communications hub for the laptop computers, the cart also stores and recharges them.

Radio transmission systems offer a big advantage over infrared systems because the wireless signals can travel through walls and ceilings. With infrared, you have to have a line of sight. With a radio transmission system, on the other hand, you can plug a network cart into a central location and use the laptops in a classroom four or five doors down the hall, greatly reducing the number of wired classroom drops that are necessary.

Another advantage of a wireless solution is a quicker implementation of the network without disrupting classes. Typical wireless networks can be installed in a month or even a week with minimal or no classroom interruption. Under the rules of the eRate, this presents a huge advantage, since eRate-eligible products and services must be delivered within the same funding year they are requested.

In a typical funding year running from July 1 to June 30—the start and end dates for future eRate funding periods—a school district would have only two summer months to implement its requests for internal connections. This assumes, of course, that the district is notified of its funding commitments before the program year is scheduled to begin. Large districts with complex wiring projects could face serious challenges in completing their projects within the target dates, unless they plan to carry out the work during the school year at the risk of disrupting classes.

A third advantage of wireless is that in most cases, you only have to deal with one vendor. For purposes of the eRate, that means you only have to deal with one vendor invoice, which could save you the time and hassle of having to track multiple invoices from multiple vendors. When it comes to the eRate in particular, the fewer points of contact you have, the better.

Stephen C. Andrade, Department Chair for the Johnson & Wales University School of Technology, contributed to this report.