E-Rate Improvements Support Easier and Faster IT Upgrades

Category 2 expansion and higher funding cap bring connectivity to more schools.

When Tulare City School District officials wanted to provide Google Chromebooks to every student, they knew the wireless network wasn’t up to the job. It didn’t cover every classroom, and it used the 802.11n specification. So they shifted focus to a new network.

With support from the Universal Service Schools and Libraries Program, commonly known as E-rate, TCSD was able to upgrade the entire district in two years — and with an 85 percent equipment discount.

“We couldn’t have the bandwidth that we currently provide to students without E-rate,” says Daryl Shelton, information systems director for the California district. “It would have been a lot less bandwidth, a lot less raw equipment and a lot less progress without this program.”

E-rate, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable high-speed internet access, last underwent big change in 2014.

Instead of discounts for landlines, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees E-rate, shifted its focus to high-speed broadband (Category 1 funding) and technology such as firewalls, routers, access points and cabling that bring connectivity to classrooms (Category 2). The FCC also raised the cap on annual E-rate discounts from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion and made Category 2 funds available to more schools.

Shelton

E-rate allowed the Tulare City School District to upgrade its network without taking money away from other initiatives, says Daryl Shelton. Photography by: John Davis.

Previously, only districts that qualified for the highest discounts (based on the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch) were approved for Category 2 projects, because the program typically ran out of funding.

“Five years ago, if you were a district that had a 70 percent discount, you probably didn’t bother to apply for Category 2 because it hadn’t gotten down that low for over a decade,” says Eric Chambers, director of E-rate and special services at the Northwest Council for Computer Education. “Now everyone can get money for hardware expenses.”

Last summer, the FCC recommended keeping the Category 2 changes for the next five-year cycle. Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to issue a draft order based on the recommendations this summer.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Find the information you need to prepare for your E-Rate application.

How E-Rate 2.0 Enhances Classroom Connectivity 

The timing of the E-rate modernization was perfect for the Escambia County School District in Pensacola, Fla.

It was in the midst of wiring high schools for APs in each classroom, part of a plan to provide Chromebooks for all students in grades 3 through 12. They had been working on a five-year phased rollout when they heard about the changes.

“When E-rate 2.0 was announced, we realized we would be able to leverage that to significantly speed up our vision,” says Technology Services Coordinator Jim Branton. “We were at an 80 percent discount at that time. That quintupled our buying power.”

ECSD spent $3 million the first year on cabling and Aruba Networks AP-205 APs in every classroom, Brocade ICX 6610 switches in every school, and Aruba or Brocade Gigabit Power over Ethernet (PoE) switches in edge closets.

“Everything was in place before the start of the 2016-2017 school year,” says Branton.

90%

The maximum ­discount percentage available through E-rate.

Source: Federal Communications Commission, “E-rate: Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries,” February 2018

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.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Learn more about how K–12 schools can navigate the complexities of E–Rate.

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."

Illustration by Harry Campbell; Photography by John Davis (Daryl Shelton)

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Jun 24 2019

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