Right after I left my job working for a VAR that focused on K-12 education and the federal E-Rate program a funny thing happened. The president gave a speech where he talked about the need for schools to get higher speed links to the Internet in order to take advantage of new technology shifts like cloud computing. He called for the FCC and the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) to overhaul the E-Rate program to fix deficiencies that have cropped up in the last few years. In the last couple of weeks a fact sheet was released by the FCC to outline some of the proposed changes. It was like a breath of fresh air.
Getting Up To Speed
The largest shift in E-Rate funding in the last two years has been in applying for faster Internet circuits. Schools are realizing that it’s cheaper to host servers offsite either with software vendors or in clouds like AWS than it is to apply for funding that may never come and buy equipment that will be outdated before it ships. The limiting factor has been with the Internet connection of these schools. Many of them are running serial T-1 circuits even today. They are cheap and easy to install. Enterprising ISPs have even started creating multilink PPP connections with several T-1 links to create aggregate bandwidth approaching that of fiber connections.
Fiber is the future of connectivity for schools. By running a buried fiber to a school district, the ISP can gradually increase the circuit bandwidth as a school increases needs. For many schools around the country that could include online testing mandates, flipped classrooms, and even remote learning via technologies like Telepresence. Fiber runs from ISPs aren’t cheap. They are so expensive right now that the majority of funding for the current year’s E-Rate is going to go to faster ISP connections under Priority 1 funding. That leaves precious little money left over to fund Priority 2 equipment. A former customer of mine spent the Priority 1 money to get a 10Gbit Internet circuit and then couldn’t afford a router to hook up to it because of the lack of money leftover for Priority 2.
The proposed E-Rate changes will hopefully fix some of those issues. The changes call for simplification of the rules regarding deployments that will hopefully drive new fiber construction. I’m hoping this means that they will do away with the “dark fiber” rule that has been in place for so many years. Previously, you could only run fiber between sites if it was lit on both ends and in use. This discouraged the use of spare fiber, or dark fiber, because it couldn’t be claimed under E-Rate if it wasn’t passing traffic. This has led to a large amount of ISP-owned circuits being used for managed WAN connections. A very few schools that were on the cutting edge years ago managed to get dedicated point-to-point fiber runs. In addition, the order calls for prioritizing funding for fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency. This should enable schools to do away with running multimode fiber simply because it is cheap and instead give preferential treatment to single mode fiber that is capable of running gigabit and 10gig over long distances. It should also be helpful to VARs that are poised to replace aging multimode fiber plants.
WAN circuits aren’t the only technology that will benefit from these E-Rate changes. The order calls for a focus on ensuring that schools and libraries gain access to high speed wireless networks for users. This has a lot to do with the explosion of personal tablet and laptop devices as opposed to desktop labs. When I first started working with schools more than a decade ago it was considered cutting edge to have a teacher computer and a student desktop in the classroom. Today, tablet carts and one-to-one programs ensure that almost every student has access to some sort of device for research and learning. That means that schools are going to need real enterprise wireless networks. Sadly, many of them that either don’t qualify for E-Rate or can’t get enough funding settle for SMB/SOHO wireless devices that have been purchase for office supply stores simply because they are inexpensive. It causes the IT admins to spend entirely too much time troubleshooting these connections and distracting them from other, more important issues. It think this focus on wireless will go a long way to helping alleviate connectivity issues for schools of all sizes.
Finally, the FCC has ordered that the document submission process be modernized to include electronic filing options and that older technologies be phased out of the program. This should lead to fewer mistakes in the filing process as well as more rapid decisions for appropriate technology responses. No longer do schools need to concern themselves with whether or not they need directory assistance on their Priority 1 phone lines. Instead, they can focus on their problem areas and get what they need quickly. There is also talk of fixing the audit and appeals process as well as speeding the deployment of funds. As anyone that has worked with E-Rate will attest, the bureaucracy surrounding the program is difficult for anyone but the most seasoned professionals. Even the E-Rate wizards have problems from year to year figuring out when an application will be approved or whether or not an audit will take place. Making these processes easier and more transparent will be good for everyone involved in the program.
I posted previously that the cloud would kill the E-Rate program as we know it. It appears I was right from a certain point of view. Mobility and the cloud have both caused the E-Rate program to be evaluated and overhauled to address the changes in technology that are now filtering into schools from the corporate sector. Someone was finally paying attention and figured out that we need to address faster Internet circuits and wireless connectivity instead of DNS servers and more cabling for nonexistent desktops. Taking these steps shows that there is still life left in the E-Rate program and its ability to help schools. I still say that USAC needs to boost the funding considerably to help more schools all over the country. I’m hoping that once the changes in the FCC order go through that more money will be poured into the program and our children can reap the benefits for years to come.
I used to work for a VAR that did a great deal of E-Rate business. I don’t work for them any longer. This post is my work and does not reflect the opinion of any education VAR that I have talked to or have been previously affiliated with. I say this because the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of USAC, which is the enforcement and auditing arm, can be a bit vindictive at times when it comes to criticism. I don’t want anyone at my previous employer to suffer because I decided to speak my mind.