Two Case Studies of E-Rate Funding Done Right

E-rate funding offers a great opportunity for schools to get the funds they need to modernize their infrastructure and enhance their digital learning, but knowing how to take advantage of it can be easier said than done. See how these two districts found ways to invest in new technology and strengthen their curriculum with the help of TTI.

What You May Not Know About E-Rate Funding

The Universal Service Schools and Libraries Program, called E-rate for short, is a government program created to help schools and libraries obtain access to affordable, high-speed internet and telecommunication services. ​​It’s designed to help institutions implement digital learning for students. While there are many intricacies to the program, at its most basic level, E-rate identifies which network assets are eligible for special funding and then determines what a school’s discount levels for those network assets are based on the percentage of students that qualify for reduced-price school lunches.

E-rate can be incredibly beneficial to the schools and libraries that utilize it effectively — but doing so can be a challenge. In this digital story, we’ll take a closer look at the importance of E-rate and offer two examples of school districts that used E-rate to transform their digital learning.

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A Brief Overview of E-Rate Funding: How Does it Work?

While the program is simple enough to understand on the surface, there are many intricacies that make up the E-rate program that often end up surprising school leaders. From eligibility to categories, funding cycles, and more, there’s a lot to untangle about the program. Before diving into our case studies, it’s helpful to first review what exactly we mean when we talk about E-rate. 

While E-rate is more commonly associated with public schools, the funding is also available to any non-profit institutional day or residential school — including non-profit private schools and charter schools. Libraries, including public elementary or secondary school libraries, academic libraries, and research libraries, are also eligible for funding. 

When it comes to the actual funding involved in E-rate, 2021 saw some significant changes to the program. As of 2021, E-rate funding will operate on fixed five-year budget cycles (2021-2025, 2026-2030, and so on). All budgets will reset at the start of each five-year cycle and leftover funding will not roll over. That means it’s a “use it or lose it” situation where schools get no benefit from saving available funding.

That brings us to the natural next question: what can you use E-rate funding for? In fact, there are two categories of E-rate funding, each of which can be used for different purchases in pursuit of better internet and telecommunications access.

Category One funding is reserved for institutions that need basic access to the internet. This includes funding for broadband circuits like fiber wire construction and more. Category Two funding, on the other hand, is meant to support the network infrastructure within a building. The funding is reserved for purchasing new routers, switches, wireless access points, firewalls, and controllers — essentially any onsite hardware that supports better connectivity for a strong network. Category Two funding is particularly valuable and effective for districts that are working to implement new edtech initiatives in their classrooms, like the 1:1 device initiative that is gaining popularity across school districts and which requires a solid network backbone.

When looking to use E-rate funding, schools and libraries should always make sure they’re making the most of the funding they can get from each category. Far too often, institutions leave money on the table simply because they don’t realize they have access to it. There may be investments you can use your E-rate funding for that you’re simply overlooking. 

For example, according to the official Eligible Services List for E-rate, any equipment that connects to a Category Two-eligible local access network (LAN), but is necessary to make a Category One broadband service functional, can actually qualify for Category One funding. That means that the price of any components that enable your Category One service — even if they’re connected to a Category Two LAN — can be allocated into your Category One funding request. This may leave you with some more room in your Category Two requests, which tend to be easier to use.

The Importance of E-Rate Funding

There are a lot of reasons why using E-rate is important, but at the most basic level, your district constituents have already helped pay for the funding via taxes on their phone bills. If schools don’t take advantage of it, that money will go to waste. 

Another reason it’s important? As digital learning continues to grow in popularity, bandwidth needs will grow in tandem. That means more costs for schools — costs that can be covered by E-rate. E-rate funding offers a great opportunity for schools to enhance the quality of education they can offer their students by improving their digital connectivity. In fact, 94% of surveyed applicants report that E-rate support is “mission-critical.” 

There are no signs that education is going to move away from the digital age any time soon. That means E-rate will only become more valuable in the coming years.

Understanding E-Rate: Two Case Studies of E-Rate Funding Done Right

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Understanding how E-rate works — and how the changes in the 2021 funding cycle affect you — is critical to ensuring you can make the best use of your funding. That’s why we’re offering two case studies to give you some concrete examples of exactly how the funding can be used effectively.

The truth is, there’s more to E-rate than just securing funds. School districts need to have robust plans in place in order to maximize spending from the start. That means working with experts to select the right tools to purchase and to install and maintain those investments for years to come in order to get their maximum value. And that’s where working with an education technology team like Turn-key Technologies, Inc. (TTI) that will be by your side from start to finish can help. 

To see what a difference working with technology experts can make, take a look at how these two districts maximized their E-rate funding to transform their schools. 

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Using E-Rate for a 1:1 Device Policy: Middletown Township Public School

Located in Monmouth County, New Jersey, the Middletown Township Public School (MTPS) district is made up of 17 K-12 schools. The district employs nearly 800 teachers, who are responsible for the education of around 10,000 students each year. 

Recently, the district decided to implement an ambitious 1:1 Chromebook device initiative across all 17 schools. Implementing this 1:1 initiative — in which all students have access to a personal laptop or tablet in the classroom — is a challenging process that poses many obstacles to education IT teams. The influx of devices puts bandwidth strain on campus networks. With more devices fighting for connectivity, wireless speed and network performance end up suffering, causing network bottlenecks that can disrupt daily lessons. 

Without proper mapping and documentation of the preexisting network, IT teams in the Middletown district struggled to maintain their disparate network components. This not only made for a disjointed network, but it also made it hard to secure the E-rate funding they needed. Plus, when it came to device and software upgrades, the district could not afford to have its already-tenuous network uptime be affected during regular school hours. That meant that all upgrades, replacements, patches, and installations needed to occur overnight — and newly installed or upgraded equipment needed to be completely operational by the following day so students could work. 

To get to work on building a better network under strict time constraints, the Middletown Township Public School district turned to their trusted partner, TTI. TTI implemented:

  • Updated switch infrastructure 
  • Off-site wireless testing
  • New and re-purposed fiber cabling
  • District-wide training of IT teams

Because of these upgrades, the Middletown Township Public School district was finally equipped with a network strong enough to handle its 1:1 initiative. It was able to bring in about 13,000 Chromebooks, which were used to support personalized lesson plans for students. Once they had their new wired network in place, the district then worked with TTI to install over 600 new 802.11ax access points on all 17 of its campuses. 

TTI was able to successfully deploy all planned upgrades per their promised timeline by leveraging E-rate funds — all without interrupting the learning of Middletown’s 10,000 students!

Leveraging E-Rate to Upgrade to WiFi 6: Octorara Area School District

Located in Southeast Pennsylvania, the Octorara Area School District is home to four K-12 public schools that open their doors to over 2,600 students and nearly 500 faculty and staff every year. 

Like in the Middletown Township Public School district, Octorara’s education leaders decided the best way to improve their district’s curriculum was to implement a 1:1 computing initiative in all four schools. ​​The plan was for each student to receive an iPad or Chromebook, allowing teachers to plan new, tech-enabled lessons in their classrooms. 

Unsurprisingly, the influx of new smart devices can pose serious challenges to any network. This is especially true in a rural school with hundreds of students and faculty constantly coming on and off the wireless. More devices mean an increased need for bandwidth, speed, and improved security. 

Enter WiFi 6 — which can boost capacity, increase connectivity, and provide faster speeds — all while reducing energy consumption and costs. However, despite all the benefits of WiFi 6, many schools and organizations struggle to find both the budgetary and technical resources to make it a reality. 

Still, Robert Czetli, director of IT for Octorara Area School District, knew it was the perfect time for Octorara to move to WiFi 6. “We had an opportunity to capitalize on E-rate and district funding to future-proof our network with the latest technology on the market and to be amongst the first globally to do so,” he explained. “While no one can really predict how our classroom needs might change, deploying the Aruba Wi-Fi 6 APs gives us the confidence that we can meet these challenges.”

By acting as a consortium of four schools, the Octorara district was able to secure the requisite E-rate funds to invest in a WiFi 6 infrastructure on all four campuses. Yet the challenge with implementing WiFi 6 technology is that it can be difficult to overhaul existing wireless systems — especially when attempting to avoid downtime while school is in session. 

That’s why Octorara turned to TTI to design and install a seamless WiFi 6-powered network infrastructure on all of their campuses. 

TTI repurposed legacy cabling to limit the need for new cable installation. Utilizing existing cabling where possible allowed the district to stay within a tight budget. TTI also installed Aruba ClearPass and HPE SimpliVity technology to improve security and performance of this new infrastructure. Finally, TTI brought in WiFi 6 access points and developed a brand new switch architecture with Smart Rate switches, which optimize energy use between access points and a switch. 

With their new WiFi 6 network, the Octorara school district has been able to introduce cutting-edge technologies into their curricula, classrooms, and campuses. Plus, the district made national headlines for being one of the first in the nation to upgrade to WiFi 6.

E-Rate Can be a Game Changer for Your District: Learn How

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There’s no doubt that E-rate funding is critical for schools hoping to empower their students to succeed. Yet, securing E-rate funding can be a challenging and time-consuming process. IT directors and district policy-makers already have their hands full without adding the burden of navigating the E-rate process. That’s why it’s valuable to align with an industry-trusted partner that has the experience needed to navigate the complex funding system and take the burden off of your internal resources. 

Turn-key Technologies, Inc. (TTI) can help district leaders leverage E-rate funds on a realistic timeline to ensure top-notch digital learning in your district. Our experts have the experience necessary to guide you through the upgrade process from start to finish, so you know you always have someone to rely on. 

Contact us today to learn more about how TTI can help you secure and leverage E-rate funds to power cutting-edge education technology in your district.

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