Oct 17 2017

4 Tips for Successful E-Rate Planning

By creating a plan, K–12 IT administrators can make the most of the federal funds.

When it comes to applying for E-rate funds, experts agree that planning is key for IT administrators to make the most of the money they can get.

"While 2018 may seem pretty far away, it’s much closer than you think in E-Rate time," writes Amy Passow in an EdTech blog. "That’s because a significant amount of planning and paperwork needs to happen before much-needed networking products get to your schools."

Here are some tips on the application process that can improve chances of success for the funding your school needs:

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1. Start the E-rate Application Process Early

File Form 470 as early as possible. Many schools and districts procrastinate until the last day to file the form to start the bidding process, but that’s a mistake. The schools and districts that file early compete against fewer schools and they’ll likely get more bids, Passow says.

Filing early also allows applicants some wiggle room to make changes to their Form 470 if technology requirements change. Applicants that wait are locked into their Form 470. If they don’t get the number or quality of bids they want, they won’t have time to adjust the form to attract more bids, Passow says.

2. Plan for Future Infrastructure

To decide what to request in an application, schools and districts must figure out how much high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi access they need over the next two to three years at a minimum, says Kim Friends, vice president of E-rate compliance services at CSM Consulting and the state E-rate coordinator for Tennessee.

That’s because applicants often make requests for funds one year to 18 months in advance of when they purchase equipment and services, Passow says. Planning ahead allows schools and districts to prioritize projects.

That’s important for Category Two services, when applicants can only spend $150 per student over five years.

3. Follow the E-rate Competitive Bid Rules

Most E-rate funding denials occur because of mistakes during the competitive bidding process, says DeLilah Collins, the E-rate and special projects coordinator for Colorado.

Mistakes applicants make include:

  • Not waiting 28 days before selecting and signing a contract with a provider or vendor
  • Not using price as the primary factor when evaluating a bid
  • Accepting gifts of value by service providers or vendors
  • Choosing a vendor or service provider without reviewing the bid (during a competitive review process, applicants must review each of the bidders, assign scores to each based on their criteria, and then choose the one with the highest score)

Every service provider or vendor must get the same information and opportunity for a fair and open competitive process, so don’t provide more details to one organization over another, Friends says. In addition, it’s easy to get tunnel vision on the E-rate requirements, but don’t forget to also follow local and state procurement guidelines, she says.

4. Develop a Strategic Infrastructure Plan

In most schools or districts, one person oversees the E-rate process, such as an IT administrator or even the superintendent. That E-rate coordinator should create a strategic plan and guide that lists each E-rate deadline on a calendar. Also, record milestones needed for each deadline, says Brian Stephens, senior compliance analyst at Funds for Learning, an E-rate consulting firm.

When creating the calendar, jot down the deadline for Form 471 and then work backward. Think through each step and how long it will take, then add a few extra weeks of cushion for that deadline. For example, before filing Form 471, districts must negotiate contracts and get school board approval, so bake those extra steps into the process, Stephens says.

Furthermore, identify all the information required for the application and who is responsible for it. The food services administrator will have the lunch program data, for example. Put that information in the guide. That way, if the E-rate coordinator of a district leaves, the staffer that takes over will have the strategic plan and know what to do, he says.

For more information on the E-rate process, check out the CDW whitepaper "A Guide to E-rate."

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