by Scott Jack Content Contributor, E-N Computers 7+ years experience in healthcare IT and tech support.
Schools and libraries are in greater need of reliable internet and internal networks than ever before. Many vital services have moved online, while internal infrastructure has to support a greater number of device connections. In addition to these long-term needs, the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional demands for network access.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and libraries began providing off-site internet access and connected devices for students, patrons, and staff who would otherwise lack access. They incurred considerable unexpected expenses for laptops, tablets, modems, routers, and Wi-Fi hotspots to keep remote learning accessible.
Financial assistance to offset these costs is made available through two federally funded programs: E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). In this article, we will highlight the purpose of each fund, what they cover, and how they work. Let’s start with E-Rate.
What’s the difference between E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF)?
E-Rate and the ECF are federal programs that assist schools and libraries with network infrastructure costs. E-Rate provides discounts for eligible on-site network improvements. The ECF reimburses costs incurred to keep students, staff, and patrons connected to remote learning during the COVID-19 health emergency
The purpose of E-Rate is to provide discounts on network infrastructure at school and library locations. Discounts are available according to the portion of the student population that is National School Lunch Program eligible. E-Rate funding is available every year and covers two categories of equipment and services.
What It Covers
E-Rate funding is split into two categories. Category One funding covers network connections up to a building. Category Two covers internal network connections.
Category One funding is used for equipment and services that provide broadband access to the internet and between sites (WAN). It can be used for DSL, cable, fiber, satellite, and fixed wireless connections.
Category Two includes equipment and services for connections within a building. It covers routers, switches, firewalls, and wireless access points and their controllers. But it also covers related components necessary to the delivery of internet within a building. This includes items like antennas, connectors, cabling, racks, and battery backups.
How It Works
Congress allocates billions of dollars annually for E-Rate projects. Under FCC direction, the Universal Services Administration Company (USAC) administers the program. Applicants follow a six-step process to benefit from funding.
Competitive Bidding. Submit your Form 470, the “Description of Services Requested and Certification”. Bidding has to remain open for at least 28 days.
Selecting Service Providers. Choose your service provider(s) using an evaluation matrix. Cost-effectiveness is the most important factor.
Apply for Discounts. Submit your Form 471, “Description of Services Ordered and Certification Form”, within the application window at the start of the funding year.
Application Review. USAC reviews your application for compliance and issues a decision letter by August.
Starting Services. Start on your project. Inform USAC within 120 days of receiving your funding letter.
Invoicing. After you have received service, you or your service provider can invoice USAC for the discount. You can find full details of the E-Rate Applicant Process here. Now let’s look at the ECF in comparison.
Emergency Connectivity Fund Overview
Unlike the annual E-Rate program, ECF exists as a response to the COVID-19 health emergency. Schools and libraries that are eligible for E-Rate are also eligible for ECF if they “provided off-site broadband service and connected devices to students, staff, and patrons who would otherwise lack access” during the emergency. It reimburses reasonable costs of equipment and broadband service.
What It Covers
Equipment eligible for ECF support includes laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems (including air cards), routers, modem/router combinations. ECF provides up to $400 for each laptop or tablet and up to $250 for each Wi-Fi hotspot. The costs of other equipment, such as components for school bus Wi-Fi solutions, are carefully reviewed to determine funding.
Eligible services are limited to commercially available internet access for off-campus use by students, staff, and patrons. For example, a school might receive funding for internet service at a staff member’s home so they can teach remotely. Or a library may check out cellular modems that broadcast a Wi-Fi signal; they can receive funding to cover the cost of service for these devices.
How It Works
The USAC provided two opportunities to file for ECF money in 2021. The last window closed on October 13, 2021. The period to submit a Window Waiver Request, which allows an application to be turned in late, closed 30 days after that. However, you may still be able to submit an application in the future.
The FCC and USAC will open another filing window if funding allows. They will announce the dates and other information through their ECF mailing list. To sign up for these notifications, visit the ECF website’s Stay Informed page and click “Sign Up”.
The E-Rate program is a great way for schools and libraries to get funding for network improvement projects but is sometimes under-utilized. Get an overview of the program in our video, What Is E-Rate?. Then learn about common pitfalls to avoid in the video, E-Rate Challenges and Solutions.
The skilled team at E-N Computers performs network upgrades for clients across Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. We have been the service provider for schools and libraries using E-Rate funding. And we would love to talk with you about your E-Rate strategy. Visit our E-Rate Resource Center and let us know if you’re planning to submit a Form 470!
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