Almost free black and white TVs?
Using e-rate funding has allowed many school
districts to purchase technology connectivity at rockbottom
prices, but does the slow purchase/approval
time coupled with the accelerating pace of technology change put
districts in an increasingly untenable situation? Are there other
opportunities to provide connectivity?
Many of you have heard of, or participate in, E-Rate — the
funding program to assist schools and libraries in the United
States in obtaining telecommunications and Internet access at
deeply discounted prices. Although the grants are substantial
($2.25 billion annually), the requests are double that amount
and the glacial approval process creates problems for districts
trying to purchase state of the art equipment.
Large or small, all school districts should consider the following
- Can you stand the approval lag-time for E-Rate funding?
- Are you prepared to cover the additional cost if E-Rate approved
equipment is no longer what you want to purchase?
- Will your connectivity plan handle a Bring Your Own Device
(BYOD) or a 1:1 Laptop Environment?
Given the obsolescence timing of technology, why would
school districts spend scarce resources to purchase soon-to-be-obsolete
equipment for connectivity? For now, the reason is
that connectivity and wireless access to date
have not been offered as a service, only as a
product. However, this is about to change. The
abundance of BYOD software and management
providers means that some have begun
discussing expansion of their market share into
“Connectivity as a Service.”
BYOD management changes almost daily.
Given that most providers offer BYOD management
as a combination of hardware and software,
it is not far-fetched to conclude that soon these
same companies will begin to provide connectivity as well. Unfortunately,
connectivity as a service will likely be more expensive than
purchasing the equipment initially.
Clearly, the advantage will be the continuous updating (like
BYOD management) that can occur as part of the service. That
risk, assumed by the service provider, will mean the service will
cost more. But it will also mean that the creation of a technologyrich
environment will not require the implementation and
maintenance expertise of a substantial in-house technology staff,
since this will be part of the service. This is not unlike districts
today that purchase service contracts for their devices so that the
repair cycle for a specific device is 48 hours or less. So too, the
connectivity service provider could be responsible for maintaining
and upgrading the system that connects the wired and wireless
devices to the Internet and the cloud.
As many districts have already discovered, allowing BYOD
or purchasing 1:1 laptops or tablets is only half of the program.
Without the infrastructure to support the technology, the devices
are of no instructional use. Wireless communications within
our buildings are not usually sized to accommodate continuous
and simultaneous wireless use by each and every student in each
classroom. Those districts that have installed access points for
each classroom serving a minimum of client devices may soon
find their equipment over-burdened. Experts advise that wireless
access points will soon need to accommodate up to three devices
Ideally, the E-Rate program will be overhauled and expanded
to keep pace with connectivity requirements in schools. The
Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the
E-Rate program, released a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in
July of this year seeking comments on a number of stated goals.
There is a common thread running through
most of the published responses calling for
significant increases in funding, streamlining
the application process, and affording more
flexibility to local districts in the selection of
While the FCC Notice for comments is silent
on the topic of connectivity as a service, many
responses recommend revisions to make 3G/4G
mobile broadband connectivity eligible for
E-Rate funding which could pave the way. Connectivity
is certainly not the attractive part of technology, nonetheless,
it is necessary for the tablets and laptops to function. The
current E-Rate program may provide an answer for connectivity
funding for school districts that have no other choice, but deep
discounts on soon to be obsolete equipment are not always an
If a retailer offered huge discounts on black and white televisions
today, how many do you think would be sold?
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.
Mike Raible is founder and CEO of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, N.C.
Andrew LaRowe is president of EduCon Educational Consulting located in Winston Salem, N.C.