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

The eRate will provide $5 billion over the next five years to help schools and libraries install Wi-Fi and other technologies needed to deliver broadband within their buildings; here’s how

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

Because of the five-year funding cap, K-12 technology leaders will have to think strategically about their Wi-Fi needs.

The FCC’s new eRate rules set aside $5 billion over the next five years for the equipment needed to extend broadband access within schools and libraries, including routers, switches, wireless access points, wireless controllers, and other Wi-Fi equipment.

The new rules include changes that will spread this funding to a large number of applicants, ensuring support for schools that haven’t received eRate discounts on internal connections before. Here’s what you’ll need to know to take advantage.

From ‘Priority 2’ to ‘Category 2’ services

According to a recent Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey, 57 percent of K-12 chief technology officers believe their networks aren’t robust enough to support digital learning—and 40 percent of classrooms don’t have Wi-Fi or other broadband access.

To address this problem, the Federal Communications Commission has undertaken the largest reforms to the eRate in the program’s 17-year history.

The FCC approved the first of these sweeping changes in a 3-2 vote on July 11. Two weeks later, the agency issued a 176-page document, called the Seventh Report and Order, describing these changes in more detail.

The eRate offers discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent of the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections (such as routers, switches, and Wi-Fi equipment) to eligible schools and libraries. Now indexed to inflation, the program will supply more than $2.4 billion in discounts this year.

The FCC’s new rules target $1 billion of this funding to Wi-Fi equipment and other internal connections for each of the next two years, and the agency promises another $3 billion for internal broadband connections in the three years after that.

This move is significant, because until now these services were called “Priority 2” services and were funded only after all requests for Priority 1 services (telecommunications services and internet access) were met.

However, that left most schools without any eRate funding for Wi-Fi equipment and other internal connections.

The FCC’s Seventh Order changes the description of these services from “Priority 2” to “Category 2.” To spread the Category 2 funding to the broadest number of applicants possible, the FCC has taken two key steps: (1) It has limited the maximum discount on these services at 85 percent, and (2) it has capped the amount of funding that applicants can receive on these services within a five-year period.

(Next page: More details about the five-year funding cap—and new rules on eRate-eligible equipment)

Dennis Pierce

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