Get Up to Speed on E-rate and Save Big on K-12 School Technology Projects

school technology

A colleague of mine recently asked an IT reseller who focused on the K-12 market how helpful the E-rate program was to her. To my colleague’s amazement, the reseller had no idea what E-rate was. To me, that is a sign that we as an industry need to do a better job of getting the word out on this program that can save K-12 schools lots of money – so consider this post my contribution to that effort.

E-rate is the more common name for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal government initiative launched in 1997 to help improve telecommunications and Internet services at K-12 schools throughout the country. Through E-rate, schools are eligible to receive rebates ranging from 20% to 90% of the costs of installing and maintaining telecommunications and Internet services, depending on the relative wealth of the school district. The idea is to ensure that all schools have adequate telecom and Internet services, so that we don’t become a land of “haves” and “have nots” with respect to these important communications services.

The program is funded through the Federal Communications Commission Universal Service Fund (USF), which, in turn, is funded through taxes we all pay on our telecommunications bills, whether landline or wireless. That’s important because it largely insulates E-rate from the vagaries of the annual federal budgeting process and whoever is in the White House. It was launched during the Clinton Administration and survived the two succeeding presidents – one from each party – unscathed. (And there’s no mention of it yet on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, so hopefully that trend will continue).

In 2014, the FCC updated the program, putting new emphasis on high-speed connectivity as well as wireless networks. It also greatly increased the amount of money available, from $2B to $4.5B over 4 years; we are now entering year 3 of that pool.

That’s a lot of money and it’s been doing a lot of good for K-12 schools. The program currently supports more than 118,000 school and library facilities and 50.4 million K-12 students, according to the E-rate consultancy Funds for Learning.

While that money is intended to support telecom and Internet services, it can also apply to the infrastructure that supports those services. So it applies not only to the fees schools pay to a voice or data services provider, but also to the equipment that supports internal connections, as well as installation and maintenance of those connections.

In practice, that means if a school needs to install wireless access points, routers, switches and cabling to support Internet connectivity, that’s all eligible. Same goes for the phone systems that connect to voice services. Racks to house hardware are likewise eligible, as are the power distribution units (PDUs) and uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) that ensure all that equipment has reliable power – a crucial consideration given how much schools rely on their online services. Need help from a service provider to install all that gear? That’s covered, too.

Depending on the district and the exact rebate for which it’s eligible, E-rate can dramatically change the return-on-investment equations for school technology initiatives, making projects that may have seemed out of reach eminently feasible.

What’s more, it’s not a one-time deal. Now that the program has been in place for 20 years, many districts will be finding they need to update services for which they’ve already received E-rate funds. That’s perfectly fine, as there’s no limit on the number of times you can request rebates for eligible services and equipment.

The FCC designated the non-profit Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) to administer E-rate. To learn more about the program, check out the USAC’s E-rate page. To learn about some of the APC solutions for K-12, visit the APC Education page.

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