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Emerging Technology

E-Rate Funding

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 questions:

  • 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 per student.

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 broadband connectivity.

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 optimal solution.

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.

About the Authors

Mike Raible is founder of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, NC. He can be reached at mkraible@gmail.com.

Andrew LaRowe is president of BAISCA located in Winston Salem, N.C. He can be reached at andrew@baisca.com.