The FCC’s extensive eRate overhaul includes a new type of eligible service, managed Wi-Fi, which could lead to more outsourced networks in K-12 schools

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Managed Wi-Fi will be eligible for eRate support as a Category 2 service.

[Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles examining the new eRate rules and how they will affect schools.]

On page 49 of its “Seventh Report and Order,” a 176-page document that rewrites the rules governing the $2.4 billion-a-year eRate, the Federal Communications Commission refers to a new category of service that is eligible for eRate support: managed Wi-Fi, or “managed internal broadband services” as the agency refers to it.

Before, schools could apply for eRate discounts only on the purchase of routers, switches, wireless access points, and other internal connections, or on the basic maintenance of this equipment. Now, the FCC’s new rules allow schools to enter into contracts that call for Wi-Fi providers to install and manage this equipment—and this full-service approach to wireless service would be eRate-eligible.

This change “will allow schools, for the first time, to leverage eRate discounts to outsource major aspects of delivering on-campus broadband connectivity,” said John Harrington, chief executive officer of the eRate consulting firm Funds For Learning. “This is analogous to a school cafeteria considering bids to manage their kitchen and serve students meals.”

These types of agreements “could lead to improved network performance,” Harrington added.

(Next page: More details about managed Wi-Fi’s eligibility—and one state’s experience with the service)

In explaining its decision, the FCC said that managed Wi-Fi services “can provide substantial benefits and cost savings to many schools and libraries, particularly small districts … without a dedicated technology director available to deploy and manage advanced [networks] quickly and efficiently.”

Managed Wi-Fi will be eligible for eRate support as a Category 2 service, and although schools can enter into multiyear contracts for this type of service, they would have to apply for eRate funding separately each year. “We will not make multiyear commitments,” the FCC said.

Using the agency’s newly created funding cap of $150 per student on the pre-discount cost of Category 2 services over a five-year period, schools would be eligible to apply for eRate discounts on managed Wi-Fi services costing up to $30 per student, per year. “This is consistent with the price of managed Wi-Fi services in the market today,” the FCC said.

C-Spire Fiber has piloted managed Wi-Fi service in several Mississippi school districts at an average cost of $19 to $29 per student. And the state of Idaho pays about $21 per student, per year, for a managed Wi-Fi contract with Education Networks of America (ENA).

ENA supplies Wi-Fi services to all public high schools in Idaho that have opted into the contract, which was more than 80 percent of schools as of press time. This includes network engineering, installation, management, maintenance, and content filtering—although the filtering portion of the contract would not be eligible for eRate support under the new program rules.

“Essentially, we’re responsible for wireless network management from the initial site survey to the end of the contract,” said Michael McCurley, chief technology officer for ENA. If there is a problem with a school’s wireless network, ENA troubleshoots and fixes the problem—and the company also takes care of network optimization.

State officials wanted all students to have equal access to technology, regardless of where they lived, said Joyce Popp, chief information officer for the Idaho Department of Education.

“We also understood that many of our districts have extremely limited resources,” Popp added—and contracting with ENA ensures that each high school has the same quality of service for its local network.

“Our experience with ENA has been excellent,” Popp said of the managed Wi-Fi contract. “They have been extremely responsive to problems and concerns … and continually strive to resolve all issues quickly and professionally.”

While managed Wi-Fi offers many potential benefits, it might not be the best option for all schools.

“The biggest problem with outsourcing [IT functions] … is an inexplicable faith in service providers,” said Geoff Tritsch of Vantage Technology Consulting Group, during a recent ed-tech conference. “Too many [schools] give critical functions over to outsourcers without doing their due process.”

Tritsch noted that outsourcing your IT functions doesn’t “absolve you from managing.” If you’re going to pass on responsibility for managing your Wi-Fi network to a third-party service provider, make sure you have a clear agreement that defines what the company will do and how—as well as acceptable response times and your recourse if these aren’t met.

Only time will tell if managed Wi-Fi will have mass appeal among K-12 schools, Harrington said. But the fact that it’s eRate-eligible could give rise to a new market segment.

“At a minimum, school technology leaders have been given the freedom to consider these arrangements without sacrificing eRate funding,” he noted.

See also:

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

Part three of this series will examine the impact that ending eRate support for voice services will have on schools. Part four will look at how schools are coping with the end of support for email and web hosting services. Watch www.eschoolnews.com every Tuesday this month for more information.