For US schools and libraries, this is a big deal (and big business for resellers).
The first quarter of the year is E-rate season for public schools and libraries in the US. E-rate is a federal reimbursement program run by the FCC designed to help bridge the “digital divide” for schools and libraries with higher proportions of low-income students and patrons and those in rural areas providing substantial funding for Internet access and network infrastructure. The poorest institutions and those with the least access to cost-effective broadband (i.e., those outside urban and suburban centers) can receive up to 90% reimbursement for certain services, but even schools and libraries in more affluent, urban areas can receive funding.
Suffice to say, E-rate is a big deal for many school districts and libraries. It’s also an important opportunity for resellers and service providers to attract customers who could not otherwise afford their services and products. E-rate doesn’t cover computers, tablets, or other endpoints. It’s exclusively for access, with further refinements this year emphasizing its focus on student and community connectivity. Formerly referred to as Priority 1 and Priority 2, eligible services and products are now divided into categories:
Category 1, which still receives the highest priority in terms of funding decisions, covers Internet service and basic firewall and gateway hardware if they are sold as part of a bundle with Internet service. For example, if an ISP bundles a firewall with a cable Internet connection, then both the hardware and the connectivity fall under Category 1.
Category 2 covers the internal infrastructure required for effectively delivering the high-speed Internet access from Category 1 to end users. Switches, routers, firewalls, wireless access points, etc., all fall within Category 2. Unlike Category 1, however, Category 2 funds are capped and allocated by site over a five-year period. E-rate consultants Funds For Learning recommends front-loading Category 2 expenditures in FY15 and FY16 since the FCC is piloting this particular allocation scheme and it’s uncertain where things will stand after FY16.
So what does all of this mean? The window for filing requests for specific reimbursements in either category opened January 14th and closes March 26th. Time is short and there are a myriad of considerations for IT administrators as they put together their applications:
What are the high-impact projects that will make the best use of Category 2 funds over the next five years? What sites need wireless? What sites need a next generation firewall?
What projects can be paid for without reimbursement? Category 2 funds should be reserved for big-ticket projects that would not otherwise be affordable.
Applicants need to ensure student safety under the Children’s Internet Protection Act to be eligible; what sorts of hardware will each site need to meet this requirement in the mid to long term?
Can schools ensure data security when emerging, sophisticated threats are targeting organizations of all sizes and schools, with their access to sensitive family information (addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and even credit cards) are attractive choices for hackers? If not, what hardware can help mitigate these threats?
When does it make sense to bundle edge security devices with Category 1 services? And which hardware should be purchased separately with Category 2 funds? The most cost-effective ISP, for example, may not bundle the best NGFW. More than a few ISPs catering to schools bundle expensive, marginally effective gateways, knowing that the cost to schools is low with high levels of E-rate reimbursement.
This list is hardly all-inclusive. The bottom line, though, is that this is an important opportunity for schools to substantially improve their network infrastructure and prepare for both increased utilization and critical safety and security requirements in very cost-effective ways.
If you’d like to learn more about the latest updates to E-rate and the latest modernization efforts from the FCC, you can register for a free webcast here with Bob Richter, President of E-Rate Provider Services on January 21st.