Big E-rate changes mean schools must chart a new path
A bigger annual cap isn’t the only recent change to the E-rate program. New forms, new data, the potential for infrastructure discounts, and (even more) new funding are all colliding to create one of the most challenging application periods in memory. We asked E-rate guru John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, for his application-time thoughts and advice.
There is a lot of funding available
“This year this is a record amount of money available. The FCC increased the funding cap and they’ve been very diligent about going back and accounting for underutilized discounts. When schools apply for their discounts, they have to provide an estimate, and usually they err on the high side because you can’t go back later. It’s like if I told you, ‘Hey, you can get a discount on your phone bill, but you need to estimate it now.’ You might go back and add a few points.
“There’s often little percentage points that were underutilized, because they just weren’t needed. Those dollars accumulate over time, and, this past December, resulted in a rollover of a few billion dollars. Between the increase and the leftover dollars, they have over $5 billion to commit for projects.”
There’s money for infrastructure projects, too
“Absolutely, there will be money for wireless access points and infrastructure, and that’s where so many schools are lacking. For years they were great about providing discounts toward the internet access coming into the building, but not the access piece. You can have the fastest internet in the world, but if it’s not getting to the students there’s really not much benefit to it. This year, because there are funds available, we know that many schools and libraries are interested in submitting those requests — that’s the weakest link for them.”
Be prepared for big changes
“This year’s application is a real challenge for applicants to navigate. There’s literally a 99 page manual to just use the software. That’s a lot to pick up. There’s a lot more info too that’s being gathered. One of the big initiatives with the FCC is that they want data; they want information that tells them how many access points a school has, what the prices are, things like that. They’re asking everyone to provide very detailed information. There’s a lot more data entry and gathering that needs to take place. It’s not bad for the FCC to gather this data, but it’s extra work, especially when it’s all condensed into a couple weeks.”
There’s a hard deadline — which might change
“Right now the final deadline is set for April 29. Last year they extended it three weeks because applicants were having trouble with the system — and that’s not the new system, which is quite a bit more difficult. There’s a good chance they could push the deadline back a week or two, but we’re not counting on that. There is an April 1 deadline to start their competitive bidding process. That would be the bare minimum amount of time you would need to bid out an E-rate funded project, before the final deadline.”
Plan ahead for the new changes
“Schools need to get activated in that EPT (E-rate Productivity Center) system. To get an account set up takes several days. They may have to call to get into the new system.”
“There are a lot of changes to the forms and sometimes it’s not really clear which box you should check. Often times it can be a little unclear and many of questions schools have will not be answered between now and April 29.
“If administrators are making an assumption about how to answer a question or fill in a number on a form that, they should make a note of that. For example, schools are required to provide the number of RFPs they’ve received. Did they get two bids or three? That sounds fairly innocuous, but sometimes when you get into the weeds of procurement, you start to wonder. A company may have e-mailed or sent the generic price of these features. Was that a bid? For things like that, you have to make a call, and because we’re in new territory, there isn’t as much directive. We can’t rely on years of doing this, because it’s a new system. There are a lot of assumptions you will have to make and the important thing is document everything, certainly in your own notes and if possible in the form itself. Then, that information is memorialized. You can show that you weren’t trying to hide anything.”
While there may be more money available, it’s not an unlimited supply
“As part of the reform efforts, the FCC put a cap on how much funding would be available for each school site for on-campus funding. The average school can get up to $135/student. It’s really not enough to do a full project. It’s not that schools are in danger of leaving money on the table, rather it’s just the opposite. There’s greater demand than funding available. It’s kind of a beggers can’t be choosers situation. On one hand, there wasn’t money before for on-campus, so it sounds a little ungrateful now if you’re saying, ‘Hey, we need more money,’ but the reality is that we really want to address the needs of providing the most robust network possible.”