School systems across the country are poised to make big requests for new federal dollars to subsidize the cost of high-speed broadband and wireless networks, but many are scrambling to understand and respond to changes to the E-rate program following a major overhaul by the Federal Communications Commission in 2014.
Based on early data, it will be no surprise if requests for E-rate dollars hit $5.1 billion or more this year, said John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla., company that consults with districts on the E-rate. That would be up from about $4.9 billion in requests last year, said Harrington, speaking at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking, being held here.
But the FCC has extended its deadline for E-rate applications from March 26 to April 16, in part because schools are struggling to provide the new data and information the commission is requiring, Harrington said.
“We’re encouraging schools to apply for all [the funding] they can use,” he said. “I know at the FCC, their desire is to fund every application, and they will do everything in their power to make sure that happens.”
In December, the FCC approved raising the annual cap on the E-rate program from $2.4 to $3.9 billion. Earlier in the year, the commission also voted to overhaul the program to provide greater support for internal wireless networks and to dedicate $2 billion in existing reserves to support such equipment as routers, switches, and wireless access points.
In part because demand for external broadband connections has been so high, such equipment has typically not been funded via the E-rate program in recent years. Many schools had basically “given up” on ever getting E-rate funds for internal connections, Harrington said.
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But this year, it looks like the average district will be requesting about $140,000 for wireless infrastructure, based on a preliminary Funds for Learning analysis. A regulatory change in the program will also help: All school sites within a given district will now be eligible for the same discount, rather than such discounts being determined on a site-by-site basis.
That new demand for wireless infrastructure is paired with ever-growing demand for external broadband connections.
The growth in requests for those two sets of services will be partially offset by the FCC’s gradual discontinuation of support for phone, email, and other “legacy” technologies. Available support for phone services is down 20 percent this year, Harrington said.
Another challenge facing E-rate applicants this year is a revamped application process that is now all-electronic and that requires much more detail than in previous years.
The FCC is “very interested in getting a better picture of where E-rate money is being spent,” which is a good thing, said Harrington.
But it’s causing “serious headaches” for those preparing the applications, he said, because many district staff responsible for E-rate are both overwhelmed with other responsibilities and not fully informed about the technical details of their own networks.
About three-fourths of schools said they needed more time to prepare their applications, according to a recent Funds for Learning survey.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.