With the right data, school leaders can make informed decisions that maximize their budgets through E-rate knowledge.

E-rate insight protects school technology infrastructure

With the right data, school leaders can make informed decisions that maximize their budgets

Key points:

When the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program first emerged in 1996, only 14 percent of the nation’s K-12 classrooms were connected to the internet. Since then, the program has transformed to help schools and libraries connect to high-speed broadband. Today, nearly three-quarters of K-12 school districts provide internet bandwidth at a minimum rate of 1 megabit per second, according to the 2023 Report on School Connectivity.

Despite making significant technological advances over the past two decades, schools still rely on E-rate funds to upgrade and protect their technology infrastructures. However, many districts find it challenging to engage in long-term planning without outside consultation or tools that help them evaluate their programs and stay abreast of the latest E-rate policy changes. Keeping up with comment cycles and changing requirements can open new opportunities for students and library patrons.

Bringing connectivity to school buses

After seeking input from the public, the FCC has issued new guidance for applicants seeking to outfit their school buses with Wi-Fi service. In December 2024, the E-rate program’s Eligible Services List for Funding Year 2024 was issued, which includes school bus Wi-Fi equipment and services as eligible for Category One funding. USAC, the E-rate program administrator, also provided specific guidance for the application process for this service.

Although E-rate has issued guidance for school bus Wi-Fi, including off-site hotspots into the program is still up for consideration.

Hotspots remain a hot topic

The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) late last year to make off-campus Wi-Fi hotspot services eligible for E-rate program discounts. During the initial comment period, the Commission received more than 60 comments, showing mixed support for making Wi-Fi hotspot services eligible for E-rate discounts. While commenters agreed students need access to off-campus internet services, they disagreed about ways to support that need. Some felt that E-rate laws should not include at-home internet connectivity. Others expressed concerns about the potential cost of adding hotspot service to the E-rate program.

Funds For Learning estimates that adding hotspot services to E-rate would increase the total demand for E-rate funds by 6.67 percent, or nearly $198 million; however, integrating hotspot support into the E-rate program would enhance remote learning capabilities and support the FCC’s commitment to educational equity. The increase would keep E-rate funding below the program’s $4.456 billion cap.

Limited time left to influence school and library cybersecurity

In November 2023, the FCC proposed the creation of a Schools and Libraries Cybersecurity Pilot Program—separate from the E-rate program—and sought comments on ways to fund enhanced cybersecurity and advanced firewall services for E-rate applicants. Under this proposal, interested schools and libraries would apply to participate in a pilot (or trial) program to receive funding for advanced cybersecurity projects.

Throughout the comment period, the Commission received nearly 40 comments from individuals and organizations who agreed that the FCC should move forward with the pilot, citing the critical need for advanced cybersecurity protections in schools. However, commenters stated they felt the three-year pilot needed to be shorter and its $200 million proposed budget should be higher. They also suggested the FCC refrain from narrowing the types of products, services, and technologies eligible for the program.

In comments Funds For Learning submitted to the FCC in January, we expressed our support for a shorter pilot window. We also proposed a higher $312 million pilot budget,  based on the average cost per participant for robust cybersecurity outlined in our 2021 E-rate Cybersecurity Cost Estimate report developed in conjunction with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). We also encouraged the FCC to empower applicants to use innovative and technologically enhanced solutions to protect their networks. Reply comments for the cybersecurity NPRM ended in February 2024.

Is your school or library prepared for E-rate Funding Year 2024?

Potential E-rate program applicants risk losing millions each year due to shortfalls in their E-rate processes and the need for insight into the FCC’s regulatory guidance. With the E-rate filing window now open through March 27, 2024, organizations must quickly evaluate their needs and complete eligible funding requests.

With the right data, school leaders can make informed decisions that maximize their budgets. New analytics and management tools can help service providers and school leaders manage their E-rate funds, meet critical application deadlines, and plan for the future.

The E-rate program continues to grow to meet the changing technology needs of schools and libraries due to the overwhelming number of voices expressing their needs and concerns with connectivity and cybersecurity. Continue to share your voice, and together, we can continue to improve the technology needs of schools, libraries, and our students.

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