After having a nice conversation with Josh Williams (@JSW_EdTech) and helping Eddie Forero (@HeyEddie) with some E-Rate issues, I’ve decided that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it any longer. But my conversation with Josh revealed something that I wasn’t aware of with regards to the new mandate from the president that E-Rate needs to address wireless in schools.
Building On A Budget
The first exciting thing in the new rules for E-Rate modernization is that there has been an additional $1 billion injected into the Category 2 (Priority 2) items. The idea is that this additional funding can be used for purchasing wireless equipment as outlined in the above initiative. I’ve said before that E-Rate needed an overhaul to fix some of the issues with reduced funding in competition for the available funding pool. That this additional funding came through things like sunsetting VoIP funding is a bit irritating, but sometimes these things can’t be helped.
The second item that caught my attention is the new budgeting rules for Category 2 in E-Rate going forward. Now, schools are allocated $150 per student for a rolling five year period. That means the old “2 of 5” rule for internal connections is gone. It also means you are going to have to be very careful with your planning from now on. But when it comes to wireless, that’s what has been advised by the professionals for quite a while. The maxim of “one AP per classroom” won’t fit with these new funding rules.
Let’s take an example. If your school has 1,000 students you are allocated $150,000 for Category 2 for a five year period. If you want to use this entire amount for wireless, you could use it as follows:
- Spend $150,000 this year on new wireless gear. You will have no extra money available in the next four years.
- Spend $100,000 on new wireless gear this year. You can then use the remaining $50,000 for more gear or maintenance on the existing gear in the next four years. Adding a warranty or maintenace contract to the initial cost will give you coverage on the gear over the five-year period.
- Spend $30,000 each year on new APs or on a managed service. This means you have less each year to spend, but you can continually add pieces.
If you student numbers increase in the five years, you gain access to additional funding. However, that’s not a guarantee. And thankfully, if you lose students you don’t have to pay back the difference.
The “D” Word“”
With the amount of money allocated to Priority 2 limited over a time period, design becomes more and more important, especially if you are building a wireless design. You can’t just throw an access point in every classroom or at every hallway intersection and call it a day. You’re going to need to invest real time and effort into making your design work.
Sometimes, that will mean paying for the work up front. Without funding. Those words strike fear into the hearts of school technology workers. I’ve seen cases where schools refused to pay for anything that wasn’t covered under E-Rate. In the case of a wireless design, that may be even harder to swallow, since the deliverable is a document that sits on a shelf, not a device that accomplishes something. If tech professionals are having a hard time buying it, you can better believe the superintendant and school boards will be even more averse.
A proper wireless design will save you money in the long term. By having someone use math and design principles to place APs instead of “best guesses”, you can reduce the number of APs in many cases while improving coverage where it’s needed instead of providing coverage for a strip of grass outside a classroom instead of the library. Better coverage means less complaints. Less hardware means less acquistion cost for your E-Rate discount percentage. Less cost means more money left in your budget for other E-Rate technology needs. Everyone wins.
I couldn’t figure out how the FCC was going to pay for all of this new wireless gear. Money doesn’t appear from nowhere. They found some of it by taking their budgeted amounts and reducing the unneeded items to make room for the things that were required. That learning process made them finally do something they should have done years ago: give the schools a real budget instead of crazy rules like “2 of 5”.
Yes, the per student budget is going to hurt smaller schools. Schools without higher headcounts are going to get much less in the coming years. But many of those smaller schools have disproportionately benefitted from E-Rate in the past 15 years. Tying the funding amounts to the actual number of users in the environment will mean the schools that need the funding will get it to improve their technology situation. And that’s something we can all agree is welcome and needed.