E-rate applications decline despite need for broadband investments

Commentary: Funds for Learning CEO John Harrington writes about the status of E-rate — and why demand doesn't match need.
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The E-rate filing window recently closed, and the applications have now been tallied. The results? Even though internet usage and the need for on-campus Wi-Fi are rising, the demand for E-rate discounts isn’t keeping pace.

Data reveals that applicant participation started declining in 2016, and it’s continuing into this year, stretching across all service categories. This year, the number of competitive bidding requests (a.k.a. “Form 470s”) declined by about 12 percent, and with that decline comes fewer Form 471 funding requests.

Over the past two years there has been an overall 19 percent decline in the amount of funding requested. This year, all combined applicants asked for less than $3 billion. The E-rate program is allotted $3.9 billion in funding annually.

It’s hard to overlook the challenges applicants encountered trying to build and submit their funding requests using a new E-rate Productivity Center portal and application process which got off to a bumpy rollout last year.


The administration of the E-rate program has also made it much more difficult for schools and libraries to submit their paperwork. In fact, 60 percent of applicants now hire a consultant to help lead them through the process.

It is important that something be done to reduce the burden on applicants. The E-rate program can and does improve the lives of millions of Americans. The dollars that come out of the E-rate program support 97 percent of America’s K-12 students, and applicants consider it vital to their communications needs.

Certainly, the E-rate program is not without challenges, but the fundamental nature of the program remains as strong as ever.

Therefore, the next filing window needs to have improved processes to increase applicant participation. The EPC system is difficult to use, counterintuitive and often buggy. This is in addition to the already complex web of E-rate rules, regulations and policies that govern the program. This simply won’t do. Schools and libraries deserve an E-rate program that works for them, not against them.

Stating the obvious — that funding commitments have been too slow, and that the process is harder than it needs to be — does not negate or diminish the significance of E-rate. On the contrary, if E-rate support was not so important, this would not matter. But it does matter. It matters a lot.


One of the E-rate program’s greatest strengths is the E-rate mission itself and how it connects learners of all ages to the internet. It’s built on three solid principles that create a powerful and resilient structure:

  • The use of discounts guards against excessive spending, while varying the discount rates provides extra support to those who need it most.
  • Local decision-making eliminates one-size-fits-all Washington, D.C., mentality, and directs the dollars to where they will have the greatest impact — back in the community.
  • Finally, the competition and a focus on outcomes encourages new solutions and better processes so that everyone truly wins.

The Federal Communications Commission will be assessing the 2015 reforms over the coming year and policymakers have publicly commented that they are working diligently with the Universal Service Administrative Company to improve the stakeholder experience when using the EPC system. This is an extremely difficult task, but as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has stated numerous times, “the E-rate is worth fighting for.”

John Harrington (@JDHarrington) is the CEO of Funds For Learning, a consulting company based in Oklahoma that helps schools navigate the E-rate application process.

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