November 20, 2017

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Updated: The E-Rate Window Is Wide Open—So What Next?

Wifi-Erate-win(UPDATE: March 13, 2015 at 12:26 p.m. ET) The window to apply for federal E-Rate funding in 2015 is currently open—and slams shut on March 26. (The deadline has been officially extended to April 16, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. ET. ) Schools and libraries that rely on E-Rate subsidies for their Internet connectivity—as well as first-time applicants—now have an additional $1.5 billion to tap for Wi-Fi.

The E-Rate program, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been the focus of sweeping reforms authorized by the FCC last July.

American Library Association (ALA) president Courtney Young has come out strongly and publicly, urging libraries to apply for E-Rate funds, according to ALA Washington blog “District Dispatch.” “…it’s time to think bigger and plan for the long-term broadband growth of your library,” she writes. ”If you have not applied in recent years or at all, it’s time to think anew about the program. There are more options for increasing broadband capacity and options that can be tailored to the specific needs of your library—whether rural, suburban, or urban. The FCC opened the door for libraries, and it is up to us to walk through it.”

What precisely are these “options” Young writes about regarding increasing broadband capacity? In ALA’s E-Rate Modernization Order Summary, some of them include the restructuring of the Wi-Fi funding formula for schools and libraries, the FCC matching funds (up to 10 percent) for states that provide additional funding for construction projects, and “suspending the amortization requirement for new fiber construction.”

Amortization-fiber-what? Exactly. E-Rate’s policy has made strides in its user-friendliness, but some of its language remains a challenge to grasp and navigate.

For those new to E-Rate, here are some basics to know:

  • Eligible schools, districts, and libraries can apply individually or as part of a consortium. This is beneficial for smaller libraries and schools.
  • Funding is requested under two category services: Category 1, which funds broadband or Intranet connection, and Category 2, which funds internal connectivity, otherwise known as Wi-Fi.
  • Discounts to services depend on the level of poverty, and whether the school or library is in an urban or rural area.
  • The application process is [essentially] the same for both schools and libraries, according to John Harrington, CEO of E-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL).

The only differences between the application process for schools and libraries are, says Harrington:

  1. “…the discount rates and Category 2 [Wi-Fi connectivity] budget caps are calculated differently. School discount rates are calculated based on their enrollment and the percentage of their students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. A library system discount rate is tied to the school district in which the main library branch is located and as well as the rural/urban status of the library system.
  2. “A school building’s Category 2 budget cap is calculated on a per student basis. A library building’s Category 2 budget cap is calculated on a square footage basis.”
marijke_web-revised-feature

Marijke Visser, associate director of ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy Image courtesy of ALA

Help for E-Rate Applicants

For those who wish to apply but feel overwhelmed, don’t panic. There is free help from organizations, including ALA and the State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance (SECA). Plus, E-Rate experts, including Marijke Visser, associate director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), can parse through unfamiliar E-Rate language—such as what the “suspension of the amortization requirement” actually means.

She explains that the “amortization requirement,” which means period payment over time, was created originally because there was fear that providing funds for costly projects, such as new fiber construction, upfront to the provider would deplete the E-Rate budget for other applicants. So, schools and libraries paid providers for the construction of new networks over a period of at least three years.

“As you can imagine, a [service] provider may not be as interested in bidding on a construction project when they can’t get all the costs covered up front,” Visser continues.

With the provider able to recoup the upfront costs in the same year, she says, there is more incentive for more providers to bid on a project, driving costs down.

Having the very language of E-Rate’s reforms explained so that it’s not alienating is key, and ALA is undoubtedly leading the charge for E-Rate education and has announced the launch of “Got E-Rate?”—an initiative to support and encourage library leaders to apply for internet discounts as part of the national E-Rate program.

“Almost all the states have a state coordinator who provides assistance to local libraries—though what form that assistance takes varies state by state,” says Visser. “This is a service provided through the state library agency and at no cost.”

(ALA’s list of state coordinators: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/e-rate-state-coordinators.)

Another tactic for smaller libraries or districts to consider is joining a consortium. The “lead” of the consortia often files on behalf of the members, says Visser, and some consortia offer other supports like helping the library know what kinds of services it might need and help planning an upgrade.

ALA will launch a series of E-Rate resources, including communications, education, practical tools, and technical support for librarians who are interested in applying for funding, in collaboration with the Public Library Association and other partners. The first of several free webinars to air is “E-Rate 2015: Just-in-Time Reminders” on February 19, 2–3 p.m. ET. (Scroll down for more information.)

FFL’s Harrington advises those who have applied before not to assume that they know what they are doing. “It’s better to approach this filing window as if it is your first, because in many ways it is,” he says. “Effective applicants educate themselves, proactively engage the process, and keep good records.”

Harrington, of Funds for Learning, provides four “musts” for anyone applying for E-Rate:

1) You must stay informed. The specifics of E-Rate reform are still being worked out in Washington, DC. Sign-up for E-Rate newsletters and sign-in to E-Rate webinars to stay on top of the latest changes.

2) You must keep good records. E-Rate applications are highly scrutinized. This protects the program from wasteful spending, but adds hours to the process. Keeping meticulous documentation today will help you avoid audit headaches tomorrow.

3) You must plan your technology purchases and budget accordingly. New E-Rate rules provide funding for on-campus Wi-Fi projects, subject to a budget cap, while reducing support for telephone services. It is necessary to weigh the impact of these new opportunities and challenges.

4) You must apply for support [in both E-Rate funding and how-to-apply resources]. Some school and library officials are nervous about applying for E-Rate funding—and yes, it takes a lot of work. But with the right help, the E-Rate program can (and does) make a huge difference in communities nationwide.

What’s clear is that while E-Rate requires work and education, the benefits are manifold and the education resources are out there. Even with the March 26 application deadline approaching, it’s not too early to gear up for next year.

E-Rate Resources

WEBINARS

ALA’s “E-Rate 2015: Just-in-Time Reminders”

Website: http://www.ala.org/pla/onlinelearning/webinars/erate2015

Date/Time: February 19; 2–3 p.m. ET

The free webinar is described as a “webinar for important tips and last-minute information to help you work through the remaining days of the 2015 application window,” on the ALA website and will be moderated by Marijke Visser and Bob Bocher from ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy.

While free, those wishing to attend must register.

ALA E-Rate webinar website:

Website: http://www.ala.org/pla/onlinelearning/webinars/erate2015

Funds for Learning’s“Applicant E-Rate Training Event” hosted by CEO John Harrington

Website: http://www.fundsforlearning.com/ad/2014/07/next-e-rate-training

Date/Time: February 17; 3 p.m. ET

While free, those wishing to attend must register.

 

WEBSITES, NEWSLETTERS, & SOCIAL MEDIA

ALA E-Rate page:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/goterate

ALA E-Rate Twitter hashtag:

#libraryerate

Follow ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) on Twitter:

@OITP

ALA “Got E-rate?” webpage:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/goterate

ALA Washington’s “District Dispatch” blog:

http://www.districtdispatch.org/category/e-rate/

ALA’s list of state coordinators:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/e-rate-state-coordinators.

State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance:

http://seca-erate.org/SitePages/Who%20Is%20SECA.aspx

Funds for Learning E-Rate Survival Kit:

http://www.fundsforlearning.com/FFLServices/FY15SurvivalKit.php

Funds for Learning E-Rate Newsletter:

https://www.fundsforlearning.com/

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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