Good News, Bad News on E-Rate
More schools are applying for E-rate federal funding. Each school (on average) is asking for more money.
And with land-line telephones (and other ground-based communication) going the way of the compact disk, there's some question about whether the Federal Communications Commission will be able to keep funding the $2.25 billion(ish)-a-year program using only money from the Universal Service Fund.
That's the bad news, said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, a consulting group that helps schools apply to E-rate, the FCC program that helps schools and libraries gain discounted access to telecommunication and Internet technology.
But at a presentation here at the International Society for Technology in Education's annual conference Tuesday, Harrington said there is reason to hope, especially for schools applying for Priority 1 funding—or dollars devoted to the sole aim of getting schools or libraries connected to outside networks.
"At the same time that we're seeing more and more money is being requested for telecommunications and the Internet, what we're seeing at the FCC is that they're loosening the standards" for making connections, Harrington said. "There's sort of an opening of the doors, if you will, to get schools connected, and that's great."
The program was recently modified to include a new index for inflation, allow schools to lease Internet connections via dark fiber networks and open their on-campus Internet for community use, and pilot community wireless networks that are anchored at school or library hubs. Harrington said he expects the FCC to consider additional revisions to the program that could allow for even more flexibility.
"I would encourage you to take a fairly aggressive posture when it comes to Priority 1 purchases because the FCC seems pretty open minded right now," Harrington told a gathering of a few dozen mostly chief technology officers, the people who sign off on a district or school's E-Rate request. "Ask for it; it might get funded."
But while that may be welcomed by an ed-tech world that's evolution is incessant, Harrington hinted it may reflect an awareness on the FCC's part that things may not be able to continue as they are. In 2011, Priority 1 requests—which are typically honored in full—have nearly totaled the entire amount of funding available through the program for the 2011 deadline, meaning Priority 2 requests—which include internal projects like Web servers, network cabling, and phone systems—are unlikely to be funded for all but the neediest of schools.
Each year, Priority 2 funding is given only to applicants that exceed a certain varying discount threshold, based on the proportion of students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program and the amount of funding available after approved Priority 1 requests are accounted for.
"Priority 2 funding has a limited life span," Harrington advised. "As you're approaching the application cycle, I would say, No. 1, if you're staging things, I would move infrastructure projects up closer to now, if possible."
Current Priority 2 requests are facing increasing scrutiny for propriety, Harrington said, in an examination process that many CTOs have already considered maddeningly demanding. And Harrington conceded the level of Priority 1 requests could very possibly reach beyond the level of funding available in the near future, at which point he hypothesized the FCC might pro-rate all requests rather than denying individual ones.
Signs point to that day coming sooner than later.
The number of E-Rate applicants has risen from about 20,000 in 1998 to nearly 26,000 in 2011, according to Harrington. In the same span, the percentage of applicants that have been schools has jumped from 43 to 51, and the total funding requested per applicant has more than doubled from roughly $34,000 to $88,000. In all, $4.65 billion in funding was requested during this application cycle, compared with just $2.23 billion in 1998.
Could the E-rate program may be a victim of its own success?
"A lot of this is because of the higher bandwidth requirements," Harrington said. "The nature of the requirements has changed. Schools, by golly, are weaving Internet into the classroom."