Heather Mills, Senior Analyst & Funding Strategies Team Lead, CTC Technology & Energy
Around the country, many local governments deliver broadband services to their public schools and libraries under the federal E-rate subsidy program (formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program and run by the Universal Service Administrative Company). If your organization is one of those providers, you’re probably breathing easy right about now. The fiscal year began July 1st—meaning that the competitive procurement process and paperwork are behind you, and you’re well into the funding year.
Don’t relax too much. Even though the school year is just starting, it’s time for current and potential future providers to start strategizing through the next two (if not three) E-rate funding cycles. Why? Because the further in advance you engage with your customers regarding their future needs and anticipate their broadband strategies, the better prepared you’ll be to help those schools and libraries potentially maximize their E-rate service requests. The more robust the services you deliver, the better your customers will be able to deliver the connectivity their students, teachers, and library patrons need to teach and learn.
Likewise, if your organization is thinking about responding to an E-rate program RFP and providing broadband services to schools and libraries in your jurisdiction, it is never too early to start planning your approach to the RFP. E-rate is an excellent opportunity to infuse federal funding into your jurisdiction but complying with E-rate requirements requires a lot of organization and paperwork!
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. As a result, maximizing E-rate funding means:
- Considering how changing curricula or patron needs may increase bandwidth needs in the coming years
- Understanding which options (e.g., lit services, dark fiber) you can offer to your school and library customers and how you can be competitive in your pricing for those options
- Ensuring you are as responsive as possible to requests for services
For example, school districts that are seeking dark fiber service options will need to do a lot more than sign a simple contract. They’ll need to issue procurement requests, compare their options, make a viable business case, and have detailed conversations with USAC about their choices. The better job you do at providing the necessary information in your bid, the easier it will be for schools and libraries to make a sound selection.
Even in the case of responding to requests for conventional lit services, you’ll need to be prepared to submit comprehensive proposals by deadlines that may cut very close to the end of the next funding application window (typically in mid-spring). Some schools and libraries may wait until January to file their RFPs for a complicated procurement—which means less time for providers to respond.
Your organization might have other, internal barriers that will need to be addressed before you can make commitments. If you are a new service provider, you should take time to review the forms and accounts that will be required as part of the E-rate process. There may be other internal process barriers unique to government providers that you may need to navigate. It’s important to take those into consideration as part of your overall strategy for bidding on E-rate procurements.
CTC has deep experience in helping municipal and non-profit providers chart effective E-rate strategies. We suggest you consider doing the following as you embark on your next round of strategic E-rate planning:
- Create a detailed timeline that considers all potential barriers.
- Make sure that you have taken care of the basic requirement of obtaining a SPIN.
- Understand what contracts you already have in place (e.g., service types and terms). Do the current contracts allow the services you provide to grow? Were the contracts forward thinking regarding your customers’ future needs?
- Determine whether you need help drafting your RFP responses. Most municipal providers are somewhat familiar with issuing and evaluating RFPs, but not necessarily with drafting a comprehensive RFP response.
- Prepare proposals that respond directly to the services requested; you’ll make the schools’ and libraries’ jobs easier if you enable them to compare apples to apples.
- Understand the difference between “lowest cost” and “most cost-effective.” That will make all the difference in how you respond to RFPs!