The Next E-Rate Funding Cycle
It’s time for some good news! The next E-Rate Funding Cycle is upon us and the timing has never been more perfect.
We’ve all learned some important lessons during COVID. One of those lessons is that IT infrastructure is mission-critical to modern education. Many schools made huge leaps forward over the last 6 years but there’s a long way to go as we all work hard to close the Digital Divide. E-Rate Funding is meant to work in 5-year cycles, but as we detailed back in January, the FCC wasn’t quite ready to kick off a full funding cycle in 2020. So as we wrap up the one-year extension of our original budgets, it’s time to start looking forward and planning for the future.
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Quick E-Rate Recap
For anyone who is relatively new to our blog, we’ll start with a quick recap of the E-Rate program. E-Rate is a federal funding program established as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It helps make sure schools and libraries can obtain high-speed internet access at an affordable rate. The program provides schools and libraries with funding for two different categories of internet and communication services. Category One covers internet and telecommunication services TO the building like subscriptions to Comcast, AT&T or Rocket Fiber. Category Two covers connectivity WITHIN the building like Cabling and WiFi Routers. You can see a full list of covered items on pages 4-7 of the official 2020 list.
A Fresh Funding Cycle
The last Funding Cycle officially began in 2015 and was meant to last for 5 years. We were all surprised to learn in late 2019, that the FCC decided to offer a 1-year extension of the 2015 cycle budgets instead of beginning a whole new cycle. This was important because schools had been given the option to spend their entire budget in the first year of funding. So if someone spent their whole budget in 2015, and were counting on another large E-Rate grant in 2020, they had to modify their plans and push back large-scale investments at the last minute.
This year, we’re excited to confirm that a new 5-year funding cycle will begin in 2021 so it’s time to start formalizing budgets and submitting applications.
The 2021 E-Rate Application Process
Depending on the last time you filed for an E-Rate award, it may be important to reintroduce yourself to the workflow. So if you’re wondering what steps you need to take, which documents you’ll need, and which deadlines you’ll need to abide by, let’s get into the details:
Step 1: Competitive Bidding
The first step in applying for E-Rate Funding is the Competitive Bidding process. In this initial phase, your school or district will invite vendors, whether they’re Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or IT Contractors to submit their costs for the products and services you need in the next one to five years. A competitive bidding process ensures that any granted FCC dollars are being well spent. During this Step 1, you will use FCC Form 470 to collect bids, following several important guidelines:
- Equal Treatment: Everyone competing in the bidding process must be treated the same. You can’t play favorites, or it wouldn’t be a real competitive bid.
- No Prior Knowledge: Bidders cannot have prior knowledge of the project because that would give them an unfair advantage. All bidders deserve an equal shot. This is about value and quality, not relationships and favors.
- Equal Access to Information: All bidders must have access to all the same details about the project. You can’t tell different bidders different information or it would give some an unfair advantage.
- No Gifts: Bidders cannot give you gifts. That could be considered a bribe.
- No Freebies: The value of any free services, discounts, or promotions, must be considered and deducted from your total pre-discount funding request. Essentially, there’s no reason for vendors to offer discounts.
The Competitive Bidding process must be open for a minimum of 28 days. Once that period is closed, Form 470 and your final vendor selection(s) must be completed and submitted to the FCC by February 2021. If you need any help, our team of experts can help guide you along the process.
Step 2: Funding Request
The next step is where you request funding from the E-Rate Program. Once you’ve selected your vendor(s), you will take their bid and enter the required information into Form 471. The two most important sections of this form are about your student counts and the services and equipment you plan to purchase.
- Student Count: Your student population demographics used to calculate your discounts. Learn more about calculating your discount rate here.
- Services & Equipment: Detailed descriptions of the services and equipment for which you’re requesting funding.
The Funding Request window is open until March 2021 so, for probably the first time ever, we will say there may be good reason to procrastinate. With so many aspects of building usage and hybrid learning models in flux, you will want to solidify those plans before pinpointing your exact network needs. Once you collect bids and receive funding for an award, it can be difficult to amend it.
Step 3: Confirmation & Compliance
The last step happens after you’ve received funding and started services. This will take place between May 2021 and September 2022. Once you receive funding and start the services for which it was intended, you will need to file Form 486 within 120 days of the service start date. This closes the loop and ensures compliance with the program to make sure that federal grant dollars are being used appropriately. If you don’t file on time, you may lose part of your grant.
Start Your E-Rate Application Today
Since 2008, Macro Connect has been an authorized E-Rate service provider and has been awarded internal connections, basic maintenance, and managed internal broadband services by over 50 schools, districts, and ISDs. The depth of knowledge that Macro Connect brings to projects in this area is the result of over 380 Category 2 awards totaling over $9.5 million in hardware and services. We hope to see your 470 this year and learn about your E-Rate eligible needs!