Two major issues are on the minds of E-rate applicants this year, says John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, an E-rate compliance firm.
First, Funds For Learning’s most recent E-rate Trends Report revealed that many E-rate applicants would like to see E-rate funding expanded to include cybersecurity. Second, The FCC’s has proposed changes to the E-rate competitive bidding process in a manner Harrington and others believe could hinder the administration of the program, which provides discounts of between 20 and 90 percent on broadband access cost for schools and libraries.
Without proper cybersecurity, school networks are vulnerable to attacks and can be shut down, leading to the loss of learning opportunities. Network breaches can also compromise student data.
Even so, many of the cybersecurity resources schools need to protect their networks currently are not eligible for E-rate funding. “The mission of the E-rate program has always been to help connect students and library patrons to the internet, and to provide the support for whatever goods and services were necessary to make that happen, and nothing else,” Harrington says. “Just the essential pieces, not just not the software that they use, or any of that, but the essential pieces.”
However, as time has gone on, Harrington says the regulations around the program have not kept pace with the way technology has evolved. “Now in order to just have a network up and running requires a whole different suite of hardware and software to keep it safe and accessible,” he says. “But the FCC has not kept the E-rate-eligible services list up to date. That is really the frustration point for school leaders today. They are looking at their networks, and it's not optional for them whether or not they provide security – they have to.”
The argument against expanding E-rate-eligible services is that there may not be enough funding to cover these additional needs. However, Harrington and others say that since E-rate funding is already capped, district leaders should be able to allocate funding as they see fit. “Provide schools the opportunity to prioritize their needs,” he says, adding that many IT directors would choose to spend money to secure their existing network rather than expand it.
Potential E-rate Competitive Bidding Change
The FCC has proposed creating a bidding system in which all the E-rate requests would be processed through one centralized document portal managed by the Universal Service Administrative Company. This new system would replace the process by which service providers submit bids directly to applicants for E-Rate-supported equipment and services.
“There's a great deal of skepticism around that, because there are about 21,000 applicants that participated in the E-rate program last year, and about 45,000 different contracts that are listed on applications,” Harrington says. “Each one of those applicants has a slightly different set of rules and policies, and there are different laws governing different states, different jurisdictions, and there is not a one-size-fits-all set of rules for procurement.”
If the plan goes forward, he says, “Either the FCC is going to create a one-size-fits-all system that somehow everyone now has to adjust their bidding processes to, or they're going to have to make some incredibly complex system that can somehow accommodate all of the different requirements of these different states and different localities.”
Although the proposed change will not impact the current E-rate cycle, many school leaders are worried. Officials in California have submitted comments saying that such an application process would violate California state law.
The proposal was made in response to audits in which some E-rate recipients did not keep proper documentation of their bids. While those instances of non-compliance should be addressed, Harrington doesn’t believe a change this dramatic is warranted. “You don't have to re-engineer the entire system that's worked out really well for 24 years,” he says.
What District Leaders and Others Can Do to Have The FCC Listen to Their Concerns About E-rate?
School leaders who want the FCC to expand E-rate funding for cybersecurity and who worry about the change to a centralized bidding system, should make their thoughts known by writing directly to the FCC while public comment is open, Harrington says.
Additionally, he advises education leaders to reach out to their local congressional representatives who may be unaware of the potential negative impact of the proposed changes.
“The E-rate program impacts every school district in America,” Harrington says. “They all depend on it. The internet connections that they have all rest on this program. And this action by the FCC could really disrupt that.”