With a looming deadline in two weeks, school districts and libraries across the country are scrambling to complete E-Rate applications in order to qualify for millions of dollars to upgrade their Internet and wireless networks.
As of last week, 20,860 applications had been filed, according to figures from the Universal Service Administrative Company, an independent arm of the Federal Communications Commission.
The deadline was extended from March 26 to April 16 after larger districts requested more time to navigate the extensive paperwork.
The number of applications that have trickled in so far is dramatically lower compared to previous years — the FCC received between 45,000 and 48,000 E-Rate applications in the last three years, according to statistics.
The wide gap in requests — for “priority 1” services like Internet access and telecommunications upgrades and then the maintenance of those internal network connections, considered “priority 2” services — likely exist because the filing window hasn’t closed yet, experts said.
“I believe we will have a large number of filings very close to the end of the filing window,” said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer of Calcasieu Parish Public schools in Louisiana and former member of the USAC board.
This year, there is a new discount offered for schools and libraries to increase their high-speed broadband access and managed Wi-Fi, which is also consuming more school officials’ time.
“Many applicants are preparing more applications to use this resource and it is just taking them longer to complete all of the necessary paperwork,” Abshire wrote to FedScoop in an email.
School officials said they are feeling the pressure of the upcoming deadline.
“It certainly is kind of a crazy year – everyone’s kind of scrambling,” said Steve Young, CTO of Judson Independent School District in Live Oak, Texas, with nearly 24,000 students. “There’s a general mentality that if we don’t get [funding] now, will it be available to us later? I think that’s causing a lot of school leaders to push to get a filing done this year.”
Young said the district still needs to file its application and is getting help from a consultant based in Dallas. The district is requesting between $2 million and $3 million, and will have to cover about $1 million from its own budget for infrastructure upgrades and new wireless access points across its 28 schools.
Though E-Rate money has been available to schools and libraries since 1997, the FCC did a major overhaul of the program this year, prioritizing broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity as more schools incorporate online learning, testing and technology in the classroom. The FCC in December approved a $1.5 billion annual funding increase for the program, raising the spending cap from $2 billion to about $4 billion.
“This is a new process,” Young said. The FCC has “changed how this works this time around.”
“They seemed very positive that awards would be quick and easy to get this year,” he added. “That remains to be seen. We’re hopeful.”
But an unwelcome tradeoff, school officials say, is the additional paperwork.
“There has been some extra work involved just because of the way the forms have changed,” said Mary Mehsikomer, E-Rate coordinator for Minnesota schools. “A lot of our districts are noting that they’re having to spend much more time on the forms than they used to.”
Still, she added, the result is worth the extra trouble for school leaders.
“E-Rate is one of those programs that does such a greater good equitably for the most part around the country,” she said. “Even though sometimes the application process gets a little bit complicated, they definitely find it’s worth their while to apply.”