E-rate funds become vital to schools' broadband plans

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Two years after the FCC modernized its E-rate program, school and library officials say the program’s role in funding broadband expansion has become instrumental to their operations and expectations for the future, according to new survey.

E-rate, which began 20 years ago as a communications discount fund, has become a primary financial conduit for helping 118,000 school and library facilities expand their high-speed broadband and network connections.

Just how much schools and libraries rely on the $3.9 billion fund was made clearer in a national study released late last week, that showed 85 percent of a sampling of E-rate applicants said, “E-rate is vital to our organization’s Internet connectivity goals.”

And more than nine in 10 (94 percent) will continue to apply for E-rate funding in the future.

The survey also found that 72 percent of respondents said Wi-Fi is critical to fulfilling their organization’s mission. Additionally, 90 percent of the 1,016 respondents who answered the survey expect to add faster internet connections over the next three years.

“The E-rate program has never been more pivotal to ensuring our students and library patrons are connected in an increasingly digital society,” said John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, which released the study. The company, which specializes in helping applicants through the E-rate regulatory process, has been surveying E-rate applicants for the past six years.

“When it comes to matters with the FCC, phone companies have their lobbyists, but the individual schools or libraries, they don’t have a big FCC lobby. This survey was an opportunity to give [E-rate] applicants their own voice,” he said in an interview with Edscoop. Harrington said he met Thursday with FCC staff to walk through the findings.

The survey also revealed some of the challenges schools and libraries face in getting their share of E-rate discounts and reimbursements.

“The FCC is trying to collect a lot of data upfront now,” said Gary Rawson, state E-rate coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services. “It’s more complicated this year. The detail is initially more complex,” but it should make it easier down the road when processing reimbursements, he said.

A growing number of schools and libraries, however, are choosing to outsource the work of applying for E-rate discounts and reimbursements, according to the study. The percentage of applicants relying on consultants has grown from 39 percent to 60 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2016.

Among those who are using paid E-rate consultants, 71 percent said E-rate was too time consuming, 43 percent felt it was more cost effective and 41 percent cited liability concerns.

Harrington said one of the surprises in the report were the number of applicants — some 45 percent — expressing concern for the diminishing discounts going to traditional voice services under the E-rate plan.

While voice services have increasingly become an application that can ride over broadband networks, Harrington said, “schools are scrambling” to offset the declining funds for their phone bills and many “are not yet ready to cut their phone lines.”

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