Navigating the E-Rate “Bridge” Year

The FCC recently announced significant changes to the federal E-rate program.

As we wrote recently, this E-rate funding year is particularly special: in addition to increasing the amount of Category 2 funds available to schools, the FCC announced that any unused funds from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 and prior would not roll over to the following year.

Instead, each school’s existing funds will be “reset” for FY 2021, with total allocations remaining constant for five-year budget cycles (e.g. 2021-2026, 2026-2031, etc.). Funding amounts can, of course, be adjusted to account for changes in student enrollment, but will no longer be tied to inflation, as was the case previously. Taken together, these changes constitute an E-rate “bridge” year between the traditional and updated rules governing the program. 

What do these changes mean for you and your school? Generally speaking, they’ll force administrators to consider a number of additional variables when determining how to bid and ultimately use their school’s E-rate funds, with the potential to make significant investments in their school’s existing technology infrastructure. 

Erate funding rule changes for 2020 are listed here.

In the E-rate “bridge” year, you should spend any unused funds from the previous fiscal year.

Rule number one: don’t lose your money. Unlike in previous years, E-rate funds from FY 2020 and prior will not roll over to FY 2021. In other words, it’s time to solicit bids for and ultimately spend your money now. 

Think of all those tech-related projects that—for budgetary or capacity issues—have been on the back burner. Maybe you’d like to improve your student-device ratio to create a truly 1:1 school. Perhaps you’d like to switch laptop models for your staff devices or install a new piece of educational software on your teachers’ laptops. Is your school’s WiFi spotty in certain areas of your facility? It may be time to purchase additional wireless access points. 

Regardless, it’s important that school teams make at least some use of their existing funds during the E-rate “bridge” year, rather than lose them with the dawn of a new funding cycle. Otherwise, you could end up paying out of the pocket for any enhancements. 

The E-rate “bridge” year’s additional Category 2 funds year can add significant value to your technology infrastructure.

The FCC’s 20% increase in schools’ Category 2 funds could be especially useful for schools who want to upgrade their internal connections, such as WiFi access points, switches, routers, firewalls, and any associated licenses. 

While such upgrades may not always provide a “wow” factor for teachers, students, or families, they often yield the most day-to-day instructional benefits, increasing internet speed, stabilizing existing connections, and enhancing administrator control over student content access. 

These funds can also be used for the basic maintenance of your current systems. Rather than installing new hardware or replacing your current routers or switches, schools may instead choose to upgrade their existing infrastructure. 

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An increase in Category 2 funding is especially useful for new or expanding schools.

For schools slated to open next fall, the increase in Category 2 funding is a boon. Ensuring your building is ready for students can be costly, particularly in facilities that lack any pre-existing wireless infrastructure, such as routers, switches, and cabling.

Working with an experienced E-rate consultant and effective E-rate service provider can ensure you make the most of these additional dollars prior to your new school launch, regardless of the facility in which you plan to open. Using these funds effectively can offset the other significant costs associated with start-ups, such as office and classroom furniture, classroom libraries, and student uniforms.

The same holds true for schools that are increasing their enrollment or adding a new site altogether. Additional students mean additional strain on your existing internal connections, which Category 2 funds can enhance. Similarly, a new site encounters many of the challenges of a first-year school, regardless of whether it has a network office or existing site to provide support. A 20% increase in Category 2 funding can go a long way in mitigating the expense associated with these organizational changes, freeing up dollars to use for other organizational priorities.

Leverage consistency in E-rate funding levels to support forward planning.

The FCC’s newly announced five-year E-rate funding cycles also provide schools with an opportunity to more accurately forecast their E-rate funding levels over a set period of time. Working with an experienced E-rate service provider, administrators can, therefore, more precisely model the portions of their budget they can offset with federal funds each school year.

Erate program changes for 2021 are announced.

Because funds can still roll over from year-to-year within each five-year cycle, schools could adjust their annual bids to effectively save for large-scale projects at the end of each funding period, incorporating E-rate funding levels into their long-term planning across one or multiple sites. 

To ensure funds for such projects are used effectively and conform to any budgetary constraints, schools would be wise to work with experienced technical project managers when the time comes to spend any funds they’ve rolled over. Contact us today to learn more about how you can leverage these E-rate “bridge” year funding rules to support the unique mission of your school.

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