Navigating Educational Funding and the Expanded E-Rate Program

For more than 24 years, educators have relied on the E-rate program to help them fund internet access and telecommunications services. But with the added costs of remote and virtual learning, school administrators may be asking themselves:

  • How will I continue to provide learning with pandemic-depleted funds?
  • Will I need to offer remote learning in the future?
  • What should I do to prepare for it?

With the established E-rate program, schools have been eligible for discounts ranging from 20% to 90% of the costs of eligible services, depending on the level of poverty and the urban / rural status at the school district level.

Specifically, the standard E-rate program covers on-site:

  • Data Transmission Services and/or Internet Access
  • Internal Connections
  • Managed Internal Broadband Services
  • Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections

In response to the pandemic, there have been petitions to expand the program, but the FCC has not yet made any changes.

What is the new $7B funding?

The American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law March 11, offers $7.1 billion in additional funding for remote learning services and equipment. That includes 100% reimbursement (up to budget caps) for:

  • Broadband connectivity to locations outside the physical school or library
  • Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and devices that combine a modem and router
  • Connected devices — a laptop computer, tablet computer or similar end-user device that can connect to qualifying broadband networks

“Outside the school buildings — that’s the E-rate frontier that needs to be broken through,” said David Jacobson, chief technology information officer of the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District in Texas. “We need creative ways to get internet access to students where traditional ways have not been effective, and we need those connections to be eligible for E-rate funding.”

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the FCC and the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the independent nonprofit that administers the E-rate program, are looking to make changes to the traditional E-rate program to include additional products and services for use by students, school staff and library patrons at locations other than a school or library.

Why schools need these funds

School districts may be wondering whether they will still need remote learning moving forward and how they will fund these programs. Many students have suffered as much as a year of learning loss and could remain behind well after a full resumption of in-class learning.1 Technology and connectivity for education and remote learning is more important than ever before to mitigate the learning loss and enable new learning opportunities where connectivity is needed.

While distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, a teenage boy talks with a female teacher via video call. The boy is using a laptop to communicate with the teacher.

Many believe remote learning will remain a vital resource for students to catch up during supplementary hours, vacation time and the summer — and will become a permanent educational tool.

“Education needed a change and the pandemic forced that change to a blended learning style. Kids should be back in classrooms,” Jacobson said. “But there’s an awful lot they can do and learn outside the classroom through virtual learning that will help maximize time in the classroom with teachers and also allow them to do all sorts of virtual learning activities that aren’t necessarily possible in the classroom.”

That’s where the American Rescue Plan will help fund programs that will extend well beyond the return to the classroom, and schools should be looking now to how they can obtain and use these resources.

It’s not like one day when the pandemic is over, everything returns to the way it was in February 2020. That’s not going to happen. The pandemic has opened the door to new ways of thinking.
— David Jacobson, Chief Technology Information Officer of the Lamar Consolidated ISD and a Past President of the Texas Computer Education Association

The FCC has until May 10 to finalize eligibility and funding rules, and USAC is already developing application and administrative processes. Once that is complete, it will be important for schools to understand what products and services now qualify, the new application window, and how to get access. USAC offers a process chart2 and detailed information on its website, but schools should consider engaging their cellular provider partner to assist.

Choosing a cellular provider that can deliver advanced solutions built for education

A cellular partner with experience assisting school districts can serve as the enablement arm to help guide you through the often-complicated E-rate acquisition process.

Look for a partner that provides:

An In-house E-rate and Educational Funding Specialist who has a strong track record of helping schools navigate a new, virtual learning world to help you navigate the E-rate process and provide consultative reviews to help you achieve long-term goals.

A Local Expert committed to support in your urban or rural community

Secure Networks to protect your students and connected assets, with Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) content filtering, mobile device management and a private network

Stable Connections to continue educating despite the unexpected, including automatic internet backup

Connected Devices such as hotspots, smartphones, laptops and tablets

Seamless Collaboration to connect and work in and out of the classroom with cloud-based communications, enterprise messaging and video conferencing

A Private LTE Network for School Districts?

To improve connectivity and security, some school districts are considering working with a cellular company to build a private LTE network. This would include building cell towers on district land where providers would not otherwise construct because of low population in the area. E-rate program funds may assist in this construction. The FCC is currently seeking comment on whether funds should support fixed or mobile wireless towers.3

“We’ve considered that. Everyone would go through our LTE network, so it’s our program, our management, our content filters. Telecommunications providers would help outlying communities connect to our district’s network,” Jacobson said. “The key is making that ‘e-ratable’ because now we’re providing internet access outside our campuses, schools and district buildings. That’s the big next step the FCC needs to take with E-rate to make that possible.”

New FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has long supported finding ways to provide internet access to students outside of the school building. “We need to get to work to update E-rate funding so all our students can be connected to virtual classrooms, no matter who they are or where they live,” said Rosenworcel.4

The Wireline Competition Bureau of the FCC has opened a comments period to seek input on how to distribute the $7.1B and administer the program. Comments are due April 5, with reply comments due April 23, 2021.5

Additional Legislation

In addition, Congress has reintroduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would invest $95 billion in expanding broadband infrastructure.6 This legislation would also add an extra $2 billion to the $7.1 billion in funding for the E-rate program and would authorize E-rate funding to go to making school buses Wi-Fi enabled — especially in rural areas where long bus rides are common.7

UScellular™ works with school districts in both urban and rural settings to connect students to the Internet, through secure private networks, mobile hotspots, connected devices, cloud-based communications and local expert guidance. We also provide an E-rate specialist on hand to answer your questions and guide you through the arduous application process. Contact your local business solutions expert at 866-616-5587 or uscellular.com/business to get started.

References

  1. Universal Service Administrative Co (USAC)  170012-SL-ApplicationProcess_Flowchart-2018 (usac.org)
  2. McKinsey Mind the gap: COVID-19 is widening racial disparities in learning, so students need help and a chance to catch up  December 8, 2020
  3. FCC News DOC-369632A1.pdf (fcc.gov) February 1, 2021
  4. The Hill Clyburn, Klobuchar push $94 billion fix to digital divide March 11, 21
  5. Majoritywhip.gov AAIA-Fact-Sheet.pdf June 2020
  6. FCC.gov DA-21-317A1.pdf March 16, 2021
  7. FCC.gov DA-21-98A1.pdf February 1, 2021