How One Federal Program is Helping Schools and Libraries Close the Fiber Gap

The filing window for 471’s has passed and the 2017 E-rate season has come to an end – queue the dramatic exhale! For technology Service Providers like ABS, the E-rate season, which ranges from early January to mid-May, is a whirlwind. But working with clients in public education across the state and navigating the E-rate process is one of our specialties. Schools have other priorities at the top of their minds – such as keeping school system networks up and running for our future generations.

E-rate is the government’s largest educational technology program. In 2016 alone, Schools and Libraries in the United States received over $2.5 billion in federal funding for telecommunications, internet access and network infrastructure through the E-rate program. The program encourages a connectivity goal of 100 kbps per student and according to Education Superhighway only 88% of school districts in the country are currently meeting this minimum. This may seem like a high percentage, but the result is actually equal to 11.6 million students and 19,000 schools nationwide who still lack the minimum broadband goal for digital learning.

This challenge of lack of connectivity within our schools is having a lasting effect. With slow dial-up speeds, or poor Wi-Fi capabilities, our students aren’t able to leverage the collaborative, personalized learning available in today’s technologically advanced world. Not to mention the plethora of devices and resources that students, teachers and parents are missing out on which can stimulate and encourage a healthy learning environment. When you consider the statistics of education rankings across the world, the United States comes in 7th behind Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, France and Switzerland. We have a responsibility to protect and enhance the education standards of all students, no matter their location or economy. This is where E-rate comes in.

The FCC has provided a budget of over $3.9 billion per year for the E-rate program. So “how does my school get a piece of this pie?” you ask. The process begins with a technology plan (ideally to cover the next 5 years) alongside collaborative technology leadership within a school system or library. According to program rules, the applicant must post their desired products or services via a form 470 and thus go out to bid. This ensures that the applicant receives the best possible price for the products or services requested. Once a Service Provider has been selected, the applicant makes an official request for the eligible products via a form 471 submitted to USAC. Then, like with all great federal programs, you hurry up and wait.

At this point, an applicant has two paths to choose from when it comes to payment methods – BEAR or SPI. A BEAR method applicant moves forward with their project without any guarantees from USAC that their project will be funded. Therefore, in this scenario, the school or library pays 100% of the cost of the project, and then submits for reimbursement to USAC directly when funding has been committed and once the project has been completed. However, many schools do not have the cash to pay for these types of services 100%  themselves. The SPI method allows the Service Provider to produce a discounted invoice to the applicant when a Funding Commitment Decision Letter (FCDL) has been received (which ensures that USAC plans to fund a portion of the project.) The Service Provider may then submit for reimbursement directly to USAC for the remaining cost.

E-rate can be tricky. Many “gotcha” moments and read-between-the-lines scenarios abound. There are additional rules which we don’t have the time or page space to discuss, including how district budgets are calculated, and what products are eligible for these funds. However, if you’re new to the E-rate game and considering giving it a go, there are many resources available to assist, including E-rate consultants with years of experience providing services to E-rate applicants.

The E-rate program has helped bring up the nation’s connectivity standards from a staggering low of only 30% of school districts being able to meet the 100kbps per student goal in 2013.  But, there’s still work to be done especially in rural areas where access to affordable fiber is limited. Fortunately some states have enacted funding initiatives for technology and many are beginning to provide matching incentives to help subsidize the one-time construction costs of laying fiber.

Below are some statistics from Education Superhighway specific to Virginia where $6.9 million in E-rate funds were committed to schools and libraries in 2016:

  • 580,200 students need more bandwidth to meet the minimum connectivity goal
  • 72% of schools and 646,076 students have met the goal with the help of the E-rate program
  • 60 school districts upgraded their internet access in 2016
  • 99% of schools are now connected via Fiber
  • 75% of school districts report sufficient Wi-Fi
  • 21% of school districts maximizing the bandwidth they are getting for their budget

Key terms and definitions:

  1. USAC (Universal Service Administrative Co.) – A federal organization dedicated to achieving accessible and affordable high-speed connectivity for everyone in the U.S.
  2. Schools and Libraries Program (E-rate) – A program funded by USAC that helps to ensure schools and libraries can obtain high-speed internet access and telecommunications at affordable rates.
  3. Form 470 – Description of Services Requested and Certification Form
  4. Form 471 – Description of Services Ordered and Certification Form
  5. Funding Commitment Decision Letter (FCDL) – Official documentation from USAC committing to a certain level of funding for the requested products and services.
  6. BEAR Invoice Method (Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement) – A type of purchasing and invoicing method in which the applicant assumes 100% of the cost of the project and receives a reimbursement from USAC after the funds are committed.
  7. Service Provider Invoice (SPI) Method – A type of purchasing and invoicing method in which the applicant has already received a funding commitment from USAC, and therefore can receive a discounted invoice from the Service Provider, who will then submit for reimbursement directly to USAC for the remaining costs.

Resources:

  1. USAC – http://www.usac.org/default.aspx
  2. Education Superhighway: https://www.educationsuperhighway.org/
  3. Funds for Learning – https://www.fundsforlearning.com/
  4. E-rate Central – http://e-ratecentral.com/

 

kristen-kavakava-2

Kristen is ABS’ Leads and Proposals Specialist – and ABS’ first resource specifically focused on delivering award-winning proposals and building public sector business. In her role, Kristen provides dedicated lead management support, prepares and develops proposals for governmental and private sector bids.