The first lesson that Jason Wiggins learned from his years of dealing with the E-Rate discount program might seem a bit obvious: You won’t receive funding if you don’t ask.
“Filing for E-Rate takes time. It’s a lot of paperwork, and it’s complex,” says Wiggins, technology director for Nacogdoches Independent School District in Texas. “Even when I knew there was an 85 percent chance we wouldn’t get funded, it was always worth a try.”
Like many other districts nationwide, Nacogdoches ISD has come to rely on the E-Rate grant program, run by the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Services Administration Company — program rules are set by the Federal Communications Commission — to supplement its IT budget and improve network and connectivity services. The trick to making smart use of E-Rate, say Wiggins and IT leaders from other districts, is in setting a strategy for spending and applying for funds that tightly aligns to the school system’s tech plans.
Sometimes that means detailing technology needs several years out and evaluating the potential for technology evolutions that will mesh with those needs, as well as the district’s own budget scenarios. Here’s a look at how some district IT chiefs have made the most of E-Rate funds, and the strategies that helped them best serve their schools.
Getting What’s Needed
With more than 6,500 students, Nacogdoches has successfully tapped E-Rate funds to increase connectivity for more than a decade.
When the time came a few years ago to overhaul the district’s network infrastructure, Wiggins turned to E-Rate again, applying for both Priority 1 funding for services and Priority 2 funding for equipment.
Under Priority 1, the district received 87 percent of the $1 million it needed to buy its own fiber lines and upgrade to 10 Gigabit Ethernet on its wireless network. (In 2014, the FCC changed the Priority naming convention to Category 1 and Category 2.)
Unfortunately, the district received nothing for the second request, which Wiggins hoped to use to upgrade network and communications gear across the district. The dry spell ultimately lasted three years.
“We had to make a decision,” he says. “Did we wait on E-Rate, or did we look for another solution?”
District officials chose to move forward on their own, redirecting funds from building maintenance budgets. To replace, upgrade and expand the internal wired and wireless networks across the district’s 15 sites, Wiggins selected a solution made up of Cisco Systems 4506 and 4510 switches, Cisco 2702 series 801.11ac indoor wireless access points and Cisco 5508 controllers.
The district also wanted to outfit the exterior high school campus and athletic stadium with Cisco 1552 outdoor wireless APs, replace its physical phone system with Cisco Unified Communications System and upgrade all of its security equipment to handle the new traffic load. The anticipated cost for all equipment and services topped $4 million — well beyond the $300,000 a year that the district set aside for the project.
So how did Nacogdoches ISD manage to actually pay for and ultimately implement its state-of-the-art network? That’s where E-Rate came in — yet again.
Wiggins opted to file another application, despite the long odds. This time, USAC approved the funding requested by Nacogdoches to purchase its Cisco products and services. In addition, Cisco Capital, the company’s financing arm, agreed to pay down all interest points on a seven-year bank loan the district had received.
Through another E-Rate benefit, the district also received the first year of Cisco’s SMARTnet Service priority maintenance contract for free. In the end, Nacogdoches received a nearly 50 percent pricing discount and interest-free financing, the combination of which let it roll out a network infrastructure “that can now handle essentially anything the instruction department throws at it,” Wiggins says, including a planned one-to-one computing initiative, flipped classrooms, streaming video and distance learning between the high school and a local college. “Everybody can do whatever it is that they need to do.”
In July and December 2014, the FCC announced several major changes to the E-Rate program, including a 60 percent increase in funding, for a total of $3.9 billion. The new program shifts the spending priority to better address school needs for broadband connectivity and state-of-the-art wired and wireless networks that enable high-capacity digital classroom instruction.
“They’ve used a formula that provides a reasonable amount of $150 per student for internal connections over five years,” explains Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “The model assumes that every school district, over the course of the five years, will get their share of that.”
A One-Two Tech Punch
The change not only provides equitable funding but also gives schools the opportunity to be more strategic in how and when they access funds.
Western Heights Public Schools, a small independent district of 4,000 students in Oklahoma City, is taking a two-step approach. In the past, the district relied on E-Rate funds to help build its own 10Gbps WAN, a Voice over IP telephone system and a tornado warning system, and to fully deploy internal wired and wireless networks.
This year, Western Heights applied for only $203,000 to cover the bandwidth required to conduct online assessments and handle increased digital demand in the classroom. Meanwhile, the district will put off its application for equipment for at least a year, possibly longer.
“The technologies, infrastructure and MDM software we need to effectively manage our wireless environment are still maturing,” CIO Daryl McDaniel says. “There are quite a few features coming out that I’d rather wait for and ensure our money goes to the best possible products that meet our needs.”
All In at Anderson School District Five
By contrast, Anderson School District Five in South Carolina will move forward more quickly. Over the past eight years, the district has leveraged E-Rate to develop a state-of-the-art wired and wireless network and enable a one-to-one computing program for grades 9 through 12.
This year, officials moved forward with an application to fund an extensive wireless infrastructure upgrade to accommodate the 10,000 Google Chromebooks now in use in grades 5 through 8. The project total: $2.8 million.
“We’re using a large portion of our five-year allocation up front for this big implementation,” explains Ben Willis, director of technology at Anderson, which has 12,600 students enrolled at 21 schools. “We’ll leave about 20 percent on the table for use at a future date, in case we need it.”