Many schools take advantage of federal funding to help pay for their website hosting. Made available through the Federal Communications Commission, these funds have become part of many schools' budgets for more than 15 years. Since 1997, the FCC's Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, more commonly known as E-Rate, has largely been used to increase internet access in schools across the country.
The program’s mandate is to improve telecommunications and technological systems within schools. It does that by reimbursing schools for up to 90 percent of certain technology costs. The program has been wildly successful. In 1997, less than 14 percent of schools had internet access. Today, internet access in schools is nearly universal. But paying for all this technology is stirring debate and putting a strain on available funding.
Future E-Rate funding guidelines reflect higher use
Despite the program’s success, there’s still more work to do. You probably know that schools are using technology in the classroom more than ever. Teachers have found innovative ways to incorporate online tools into lesson plans. Mobile devices are commonly used by teachers, students, and administrators. Social media is becoming a more powerful communication tool between schools, students, and parents.
To leverage this technology, schools need greater bandwidth and wi-fi access. They also need websites that are responsive to mobile devices, as well as website content management systems that allow them to quickly and effectively share their message.
One of the biggest problems with E-Rate has been that many of these requests are labeled Priority 2 in the application process. Priority 2 requests are those that are improvements on an already existing system. In contrast, Priority 1 requests are those that deal with bringing basic connectivity to a school. Experts say that almost all of E-Rate’s current funding goes to Priority 1 requests, with little left over for Priority 2.
Fortunately it seems this is set to change. The FCC announced in January that it would pump more than $2 billion into the program over the next two years. The new funds will be targeted towards high-speed broadband access, regardless of whether the request is for new service or an upgrade over old service.
This increase in funding appears to be just one step towards greater ambitions for the E-Rate system. A recent New York Times article noted that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to bring one-gigabit access to at least one community in each state. That speed is 60 to 100 times faster than the internet connections currently in place in most schools. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV went even further, and proposed the fund be sufficient to provide such a speed to every school in America. Senator Rockefeller said that he’d like to expand the program’s funding to as much as $9 billion.
Additionally, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called for a complete reboot of the program, using the name “E-Rate 2.0.” Rosenworcel’s proposal includes additional funding, but also changes other aspects of the program, such as:
- Directing savings from other Universal Service Fund programs into E-Rate
- Asking E-Rate applicants to set clear goals with regards to capacity and needs
- Encouraging a greater number of private-public partnerships that would bring cost-effective technology to schools
- Streamlining the E-Rate application process
- Expanding the E-Rate Spots program, which allows schools to keep their doors open after hours so that community members may use computers to access the internet
How schools can take advantage of added funding
The additional funds aren’t expected hit E-Rate until 2015, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start considering your goals and needs with regard to internet connectivity. Ms. Rosenworcel has indicated that 80 percent of the country’s schools and libraries have internet speeds that don’t meet their current needs. That means your school likely qualifies for an upgrade to a faster connection.
E-Rate doesn’t just cover broadband and related hardware. If you’re applying for improved broadband connectivity, you may want to take the opportunity to apply for funding for other improvements in your technology strategy. One area that is covered by E-Rate is enhancement to your school website. E-Rate covers website hosting and related services, so your website will be covered as long as it’s part of a hosting package.
An effective website is an important spoke in the wheel of a school’s technology strategy. The website can serve an important role in sharing the school’s message with students, parents, and the overall community. Teacher pages within the site can also facilitate communication between teachers, students, and parents and prove to be an important learning tool in the classroom.
Some school administrators and teachers are overwhelmed by the prospect of maintaining a website and engaging in social media. However, a content management system such as the one offered by Campus Suite can make website and social media management easy, even for those who don’t aren’t technologically inclined.
Many content management systems – including Campus Suite website hosting for schools – are eligible for E-Rate funding. As you prepare your E-Rate application for increased broadband connectivity, consider other aspects of your technology plan that could use improvement. You can apply for all of these areas in one application and receive up to 90 percent in funding for a substantial overhaul to your entire digital strategy.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.