They used Category 1 funds for fiber rings to bring Gigabit Ethernet to the last portion of the district without it.
With $2 million left, ECSD plans to spend this year upgrading to 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) radios in most classrooms, multigigabit-capable edge switches and 10-gigabit, 48-port core switches.
With money saved on the network, they rolled out 30,000 Chromebooks.
“Initially, it was going to be a five-year project starting in 2014,” Branton says, “so we’d just now be getting to a place we reached in 2016.”
E-Rate Experts in Demand for Efficient Application Process
While discounts are available to more districts, administrators do need to mind the details of the application process.
“It isn’t particularly forgiving, especially around deadlines,” says Chambers. “A district that treats it as a one-and-done kind of thing generally struggles with success, because they’re not thinking about this as an ongoing, year-round activity.”
E-rate veterans know applications are a major time commitment. “It takes a team,” Branton says. “This is not something any one person can do.”
Schools and districts can apply through a group, such as a regional or state consortium, which simplifies the process and yields volume-based pricing. They can also get assistance from state coordinators. Anya Klinginsmith, senior purchasing agent at ECSD, says Florida’s coordinators are knowledgeable and make it easy to ask questions.
ECSD handles applications in-house, preferring to retain control of the process, while Tulare City School District uses a consultant.
“The cost of a consultant is negligible in relation to the discounts provided by the program, and it gives that outside check-and-balance,” Shelton says. “It’s not the IT professional’s sole responsibility to manage E-rate anymore. It needs to be a collective effort, and a consultant can help you organize it.”
A Long View Saves Money in the Long Run
Many leaders don’t apply because they lack knowledge of the program, says Hector Reyna, CTO of El Paso’s Socorro Independent School District. But if hiring an expert generates $2 million in discounts, he says, “it pays for itself.”
Reyna also suggests hiring a good network engineer. “You’d be surprised at the number of districts that have infrastructure that doesn’t work because they don’t have qualified people to work on it,” he adds.
Hiring an E-rate specialist also frees up IT staff to focus on the technology projects themselves, as opposed to the process of getting them funded.
“If students need better wireless, it is my job to design a plan,” says TCSD’s Shelton. “I don’t really change my plan based on E-rate. I already know what they’ll fund because of the eligible products list.”
In the past, that list was vague in some areas and expansive in others, Shelton says. But as program administrators become more familiar with IT trends, they are better able to fine-tune and clarify it.
TCSD’s upgrade to an 802.11ac network included 50-micron fiber, bringing the district from 1-gigabit-per-second capacity fiber to 10Gbps. In 2016, the district installed Cisco 4500-X Series edge switches, Cisco 2960-X multigigabit PoE switches, Ruckus R710 APs and Ruckus ZoneDirector 1200 controllers in five middle schools.
The following year, it installed Cisco 3850 multigigabit PoE switches and Cisco Aironet 3802i APs with built-in Cisco Mobility Express controllerless access in its 10 elementary schools.
The district would have funded the project if E-rate discounts weren’t available, but it would have been challenging, taken much longer and shifted money away from other initiatives, says Shelton.
Overall, the program has become progressively better, he says. The E-rate Productivity Center, an online application portal added during the modernization, “was a huge jump forward because at least it was electronic,” he adds.
The EPC has also brought structure and clarity to the way organizations request discounts, and it’s made pricing public so organizations can research costs before applying for E-rate.
“The planning piece is critical,” says Chambers. “Districts should have a clear understanding of what they need not just today, but what they’ll need five years from now. Then they can approach the work more systematically and wind up with a much more robust system.”
For more information on the E-rate process, check out the CDW whitepaper "A Guide to E-rate."