7 Questions Every Superintendent Needs to ask about E-rate in 2020

By Brian Proffit

The halls and classrooms of your schools gleam as brightly as the smiles of the teachers and administrators welcoming back the students from summer break. Another school year begins filled with hope and promise. With so many functions to manage, worrying about the network that hums behind the scenes is generally one that Superintendents tend to not pay much attention to. After all, they have Network Teams for that.

Maintaining a robust, scalable and secure network is one of the most critical roles in today’s education environment. Studies by the Brookings Institute show that digital learning, when deployed across ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic groups ensures that no student experiences a 21st century skills and opportunity gap.

A vital part of that is the Universal Services Schools and Libraries (E-rate) Program, which provides discounts ranging from 40-90% to assist eligible schools and libraries in obtaining affordable internet access and telecommunications services.

E-rate funds the following service types: Data Transmission Services and/or Internet Access, Internal Connections, Managed Internal Broadband Services, and Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections. Discounts range from 20-90 percent of the costs of eligible services, depending on the level of poverty and the urban/rural status at the school district level. Eligible schools, school districts, and libraries may apply individually or as part of a consortium.

The E-rate Program supports connectivity, which is the conduit or pipeline for communications using telecommunications services or the internet.

There are major changes and enhancements to the program, with funding opportunities that may allow your school to take advantage of a subsidized build-out of fiber, which can drastically reduce your operating expenditures, and provide permanent scale, to enable all of the coming advancements in educational technology.

To ensure your Technology Departments are leveraging this “Golden Coupon” there are seven questions you should be asking your IT Director today.

1.     Will our Wide Area Network (WAN) scale to meet the rapidly evolving educational technology of the coming decade? What would happen if we were to scale our WAN beyond 1G to 10G per site?

Over the last several years many Districts rushed to meet a de facto 1Gigabyte per school, connected by fiber, with the aim of supporting migration to on-line state standardized testing.

The networks that were deployed to meet this benchmark couldn’t have possibly predicted the quantum leap forward that EdTech has taken. If you have been tuned in at all to trends of 1:1 Devices, Connected Classroom Management Systems, Cloud Based Curriculum, Project Based Learning, Immersive Educational Experiences, etc., then you know that we are just starting to scratch the surface.

2.     What level of control do we have of our WAN infrastructure?

This determines not only what you can support in terms of scalability, but also your capabilities to deploy and manage Video traffic, SD WAN, Private Cloud environments, content and curriculum management — all the while, maintaining privacy, security, stability while ensuring operational resiliency.

 

3.     Are we getting everything we are paying for, or are we on an oversubscribed switched network?

The incumbent carriers and local cable providers magically increased their speeds, and in some cases offered annual renewal discounts to fend off competition, often with minor modifications and small lateral fiber builds. The reality is that you may still be on a Hybrid Fiber-Coax system, or a legacy Ethernet platform that was not overbuilt. Your network is likely aggregated on the carrier’s backbone network, routed through their regional hubs and vastly over-subscribed. i.e., You have 12 schools with 1G of bandwidth and you are getting 10G at the Hub. The sum of the bandwidth at the edge does not equal what is being delivered at the Hub.

 

4.     When was the last time we updated our requirements on our 470 form or our decision rubric to align with and encourage competitive providers?

We are still seeing 470 Forms (the request for services filing required by USAC), that only permit maximum speeds of 1G, or rubrics that provide higher scores for incumbent providers based on past relations with the district. These automatically disqualify a true competitive response.

5.     Have we leveraged Special Construction to control our own WAN?

The E-Rate Modernization Act of 2014 has provisions that will cover the costs that allow for a competitive carrier to build and deploy a new private fiber WAN (lit or dark) and has suspended the $500,000 cap on construction cost. Plus, if your state has a broadband match provision, you could receive up to an additional 20% towards the districts portion of the upfront capital.

The purpose of this provision was to enable Districts to receive fully scalable, carrier grade WAN services, while permanently reducing their operating expenses. Now the district can experience the benefit of owner like economics, without the burden and cost associated with ownership, operations and maintenance of the network assets. 

 

6.     Are we evaluating costs as an infrastructure project, looking at 10 and 20-year TCO?

By evaluating options for longer term contracts, especially those leveraging Special Construction, with extended renewal periods, to build in costs for bandwidth upgrades. This allows the district to realize the “owner like economics” of fiber as a critical infrastructure procurement, rather than a commodity service. Remember we are not talking about Internet Access, but the interbuilding WAN service.

Imagine trying to justify the construction of a new state-of-the-art high school, and only being able to use a 3-year TCO.

 

7.     If our contract ends next year, are we soliciting new bids early enough to allow for a fiber construction process that may take 12-18 months?

Given the time needed for engineering, permitting & construction, final testing & implementation, provisions need to be made to possibly exercise single year contract extensions, or issue an RFP the year before your contract expires.

 

As you read all of this, your first thought might be, but that is what we have an E-Rate consultant for. You may be surprised to learn that the typical E-Rate consultant is not providing strategic guidance but serves more as a filing service to ensure compliance.

A successful fiber infrastructure project takes the support of the District Administration.

The good news it is not too late to have this conversation with your IT Director, and as Education Superhighway (a non-profit that directs research and provides advocacy and consultation services to states and school districts) recommends, “it is important that you build good working relationships with potential suppliers prior to writing your RFP, because once you officially release your RFP, your communication must be limited[i].”

WANRack is the leading National expert at providing Private Fiber WANs, operating in 21 states and growing, with over 250 years of experience in our management team. We can provide numerous examples of districts, that have successfully leveraged this process and share our experiences that may ease your journey to the Last Network You’ll Ever Need, Guaranteed!

  [i] https://www.educationsuperhighway.org/upgrade/purchase-implement/rfp-templates-guidance/