A $5 billion bounty: How to use eRate support for Wi-Fi

For schools, the cap amounts to $150 per student on the pre-discount cost of services over five years.

For instance, a school with 1,000 students that qualifies for a 60-percent discount could buy up to $150,000 in Wi-Fi equipment next year, receiving $90,000 in eRate funding to offset the cost—but then it would be ineligible for further Category 2 support for the next four years.

To ensure that smaller schools can buy the minimum amount of Wi-Fi gear they need, the FCC created a “funding floor” of $9,200 per building. (Again, this refers to the pre-discount price of equipment.)

So, a 60-percent discount school with only 50 students would not be limited to $7,500 in Category 2 services over five years; instead, it could spend up to $9,200 and receive up to $5,520 in eRate support.

The FCC has put a lot of thought into these figures, taking into account both the fair-market cost of reasonably equipping classrooms with Wi-Fi and the number of K-12 classrooms nationwide—and the agency believes its calculations will extend Category 2 funding to meet the needs of any school or district.

But only time will tell for sure, and the FCC plans to reassess these new rules after two years.

Changes in eligibility of equipment

The FCC’s Seventh Order transforms the eRate from a telecommunications program into a broadband program that supports the delivery of high-speed internet service to and within school buildings.

To set aside money for Wi-Fi and other internal connections over the next five years, the FCC has made significant changes to the kinds of services that are eligible for eRate support.

For instance, funding for all voice-related services—including plain old telephone service, toll-free service, and even voice over IP (VoIP)—will be phased out over five years. eMail, voice mail, and web hosting no longer will be eligible for eRate discounts beginning next year.

Also ineligible next year are all products and services that fall under these categories: Circuit Cards and Components; Interfaces, Gateways, Antennas, and Servers; Storage Devices; Video Components; and Data Protection Components, other than firewalls, uninterruptable power supplies, and battery backups.

Caching servers, which store information locally so it can be accessed more quickly, will still be eRate-eligible. The FCC views these devices as tools to help school systems optimize their network performance—resulting in “more efficient use of eRate funding,” the agency said.

Support for the basic maintenance of internal connections is still available as well, but only if the equipment is eligible under the new program rules—and only if schools haven’t exceeded their five-year limit on Category 2 funding.

Because of this five-year cap, K-12 technology leaders will have to think strategically about their Wi-Fi needs—and they should look at purchasing equipment with a five-year life cycle in mind.

(Next page: More advice for school leaders; reaction from some eRate observers)

Dennis Pierce

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