The FCC Announced E-Rate Program Updates. Now What?
After an extended period in limbo, there is more clarity about the federal E-Rate program and what K–12 districts need to know when submitting forms for the next application period and planning future networking needs.
On Dec. 3, the Federal Communications Commission released its Report and Order, which includes important changes.
One notable change is the FCC made permanent the Category Two budget approach it adopted in 2014, extending the trial period an extra year through the 2020 funding year.
The FCC approved the last five-year E-Rate budget in 2014, which was also the first year of the program modernization. Most of the new rules will not go into effect until 2021.
Part of the previous modernization included the establishment of a budget system for Category Two funding, which covers schools’ internal connections and can cover switches, routers and access points as well as equipment needed to install broadband in schools.
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E-Rate Wins and Unfulfilled Wishes
In its recent comments, the FCC noted “overwhelming record support” for the Category Two approach, which it says “provided broader, more equitable, and more predictable funding for schools and libraries than under the prior rules.”
The new guidelines increase the program’s overall cap by $1.5 billion.
Other changes, Education Superhighway notes, include:
- E-Rate discounts for wide-area networks
- Incentivizing state support for “last-mile” broadband connections
- Calculating Category Two budgets on a districtwide basis (starting in the 2021 funding year)
The change to Category Two budget calculations is another important development. Some officials felt the current calculation method, which is by building, adds more complexity. For example, if a building needs to update an entire network, it likely will cost more and require districts to have to pay more out of pocket. Allocating funding by district instead offers much more flexibility in getting funds where they need to go.
While waiting for news of the E-Rate update, school leaders and advocates shared the changes they would like to see. In its “2019 E-rate Trends Report,” Funds for Learning noted that most school leaders feel they need more than $250 per student over five years, an increase of $100 per students.
In September, the Consortium for School Networking asked that the FCC boost E-Rate funding to accommodate school districts’ expanding cybersecurity needs and “take other steps to strengthen the program’s internal connections component.” In a Dec. 4 statement about the commission’s announcements, CoSN CEO Keith Krueger applauded some of the changes, specifically updating the Category Two program “to better support small, rural school districts by increasing their funding floor.”
But, Krueger noted, the commission did not meet requests for increased cybersecurity funds.
What does all of this mean for K–12 schools and districts, as well as other eligible entities? The application process is underway for the 2020 funding year. Schools already are submitting Form 470, which is the first step in the process.
As conversations about the FCC’s changes and their impact continue, it is smart for leaders of districts to look ahead and complete the application process. Consider all network needs for the next two years and file a Form 470 for all of that equipment. Schools that got a bid via Form 470 do not have to request funding. Submitting that form obligates your district to nothing except accepting bids; you don’t have to buy anything. But you cannot request funding without bids from Form 470. Submit the form early to get strong bid responses. If you wait, you may not get the response you want — when application volume picks up, response time slows.
This article is part of the "Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology" series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.