Heather Mills, Senior Analyst & Director of Operations, CTC Technology & Energy
If your organization is receiving broadband funding under the federal E-rate program (formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program), you finished certifying your funding request paperwork (Form 471) in May and are breathing easy. You might already have received your Funding Commitment Decision Letter (FCDL) for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2018. If so, you probably are quite relaxed about E-rate right now.
Before you check out for the rest of the summer, though, it’s time to start strategizing through the next two (if not three) E-rate funding cycles. Why? The further in advance you examine your organization’s future needs, evaluate your options, and set your broadband strategies, the better prepared you will be to potentially maximize your E-rate funding requests. This will help you make sure your students, teachers, and library patrons are getting the connectivity they need to teach and learn.
When the FCC “modernized” E-rate in late 2014—the first change in 18 years—it prioritized funding to allow schools and libraries additional flexibility and options for purchasing services or even building their own networks to meet connectivity goals (including obtaining gigabit service options for their organizations).
More than ever, maximizing E-rate funding means:
- Carefully quantifying how changing curricula (or patron needs) will increase bandwidth needs in the coming years
- Evaluating which options for connectivity will be best and most cost-effective for you: purchasing services, leasing dark fiber, or even building your own fiber network
- Allowing time to compare those options, negotiate contracts, and make the case in your E-rate request
School districts that are thinking about building their own fiber networks will need to do a lot more than sign a contract with a service provider. They will need to issue procurement requests, compare their options, make a viable business case, and have conversations with the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC, the FCC’s E-rate administrator) about their choices. In fact, if the selected option involves self-construction, negotiating a contract might take much longer than you think.
But even in the case of procuring conventional lit services from commercial providers, those procurement requests (filed using Form 470) need to be issued and in the field for at least 28 days before the close of the funding application window, which typically comes in late March each year. That means not only filing Form 470s by late January or early February, but also conducting proper studies and planning well before that. Waiting until January to file your Form 470 for a complicated procurement is simply inadvisable.
What other barriers might your organization have internally that will need to be addressed before you can make commitments? It’s important to take those into consideration as part of your overall strategy for utilizing E-rate.
CTC has deep experience in helping school districts and libraries chart effective E-rate strategies. We suggest you consider doing the following as you embark on your next round of strategic planning for use of E-rate:
- Create a detailed timeline that considers all potential barriers.
- Understand what contracts you already have in place (for service types and terms) before putting out an RFP. Does the current contract allow your services options to grow without penalty to your organization’s budget? Was it forward-thinking regarding your future needs?
- Get help writing your RFPs. Filing the Form 470 is relatively straightforward, but creating a comprehensive RFP that gets you quality bids on the services you are looking for can be extremely challenging.
- Don’t accept poor proposals. If you were clear in your RFP about the services that you wanted and the bidders didn’t respond with proposals that address your requests, they aren’t making your job easier. You need to be able to compare ‘apples-to-apples.’
- Understand the difference between ‘lowest cost’ and ‘most cost-effective.’ It will make all the difference in how you procure your services!
- Think about including requirements in your RFPs that benefit local business participation. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it matters to how the bidders create their proposals.
- Utilize your standard contract form and terms whenever possible. If the service provider dictates all the terms to you, are you really getting a good deal?