2015 is a landmark year for technology in K-12 education. A leading contributor to 2015 tech-forward trends in schools is E-rate. The Schools and Libraries Program (known as E-rate) funded by the Universal Service Fund (USF) and administered by the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) provides 20%-90% discounts to assist schools and libraries obtain or improve their IT infrastructures. The USAC says on its website that for schools and libraries to provide “the high level of service necessary for their students and patrons to participate fully in American society, the costs can be great … the hardware needed for assembling local networks, and maintenance of systems and machines can stretch budgets that are already under stress.” Therefore, the E-rate program helps ensure that schools and libraries can have affordable telecommunications and internet access. 2014 Was a Defining Year for the E-Rate Program Guided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and paid for by telephone customers, E-rate received two big boosts in 2014. Following a request for reform by President Barack Obama, the FCC overhauled the E-rate program (E-rate Modernization Order) in July 2014, expanding Wi-Fi in schools and libraries. The reform aimed to expand Wi-Fi to more than 10 million students in 2015 alone. Then, in December 2014, the FCC approved a $1.5 billion increase in the E-rate budget, raising the total budget to $3.9 billion, to address the need for high-speed broadband connectivity in schools and libraries. Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of EducationSuperHighway, told EdSource, “The additional money … should meet President Barack Obama’s goal of providing 99% of students in America with next-generation broadband – between 100 megabits and 1,000 megabits per second (1Gbps) by the end of 2018. That would provide enough capacity for laptops and tablets for all students in every classroom.” E-Rate Project Activity Increases in 2015 Onvia has a large database of procurement activity and spending plans from more than 80,000 agencies in the U.S. and Onvia covers nearly all of the E-rate projects published annually. Because of the increased funding available with E-rate, there is increased activity over the last year in the education market. According to Onvia’s Project Center, the number of E-rate equipment and services opportunities increased by 40% over the previous year. Examples of recent bids and RFPs include: Calumet City School District No.155 in Calumet City, IL Issued a bid in March 2015 for a comprehensive technology solution that will provide cost effectiveness and expanded manageability needs of the E-rate reimbursement program including installation, termination, configuration of internal connections, operational connectivity of up to 150 Wi-Fi access points (WAPs), up to four 48-port POE managed switches, licensing and wireless controllers. Natchitoches Parish School System in Natchitoches, LA Issued a bid in September 2015 for the 2016-2017 E-Rate WAN & Internet Services Project: The District is requesting information/proposals from E-rate eligible vendors who can provide both or one of the following services: A) Category 1 Services (internet and wide-area network (WAN) connections) to all eligible locations and B) Internet access to the School Board Office. Consultation Is Practically a Requirement with E-Rate Initiatives Proper infrastructure installation & maintenance are key to the success of the E-rate program, as well as properly filled out program-related forms. Consulting services, particularly with the recent E-rate modernization orders, are in big demand. One consulting firm, E-Rate Central, lists 10 rules for success saying that, as the E-rate program has matured it has become increasingly complex: “It is now disturbingly easy to run afoul of rules and procedures, to lose a year of funding, or in some cases to be asked to return funds disbursed in earlier years. Since E-rate funds are needed, not only for new projects, but for the support of ongoing programs, the importance of proper E-rate planning and execution cannot be overstated.” Rule #1: E-rate is not, and cannot be treated as, a “file it and forget it” program. It is a full year job. “In the course of any year, E-rate coordinators are typically dealing with three different funding years, each with critical deadlines. There are reimbursements to be claimed from the previous year’s funding; there are review and filing requirements for the current year; and there are new applications to be filed for the next year. While there is a peak of activity in January … there is something to do all the rest of the year – even during the summer vacation period.” Onvia’s Project Center reflects these program concerns in recent projects: Indiana Department of Administration Issued an RFP in August 2015 for E-rate consulting services that includes filing E-Rate forms for approximately 360 schools statewide purchasing internet access. The successful vendor must collect and retain information from school corporations to support E-rate filing, file Form 471s and Form 486s, respond to PIA requests and other E-rate audits, and provide expert support to the state e-rate coordinator in communicating with schools and in addressing state-level filing matters. Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, FL Issued an RFP due in October 2015 for E-rate compliance consulting that includes program planning, procurement process and application reviews, funding and financial services. The RFP highlights that critical tasks and deadlines occur throughout the year for multiple service categories: “Missing a step or deadline could disqualify OCPS from receiving thousands, even millions of dollars in eligible discount dollars.” Looking at 355 recent E-rate awards in Onvia’s Term Contract Center, 179 are contracts of one year or more. Of the contracts set to expire in the next couple of years, 20% are for consulting services, suggesting that in addition to ongoing network and telecommunications services, information systems and professional consulting services are needed to support E-rate initiatives. Examples of consulting contracts include: Palmdale School District in Palmdale, CA Approved a one-year independent contractor services agreement ending in June 2016 with CSM Consulting, Inc. for E-rate consulting services for filing year 2016-2017 at a cost of $45,900 per fiscal year payable on a monthly basis. Southern Tioga School District in Blossburg, PA Approved a one-year agreement ending in October 2015 with BLaST Intermediate Unit 17 to provide assistance with preparing E-rate documents for the 2015-16 school year at a total cost not to exceed $2,500. E-Rate Will Continue to Improve 21st Century Education Looking to the future, Onvia’s Spending Forecast Center revealed that 65% of all proposed and adopted technology plans for school districts and for agencies supporting education include E-rate discounts for IT infrastructure (telecommunications, internet access, internal connections and maintenance). Additional resources necessary to the connectivity, such as computers, telephones, classroom software, professional development, are not included in the E-rate program so budgets and plans tend to keep these items separate. Technology plans that include E-rate typically adhere to a set of requirements that are imposed by the Federal E-rate program. In January 2015, the Minnesota Department of Education published their 2016-2018 Technology Plan Guidance, along with a handy template, that sums up what districts across the country need to include in their plans order to remain eligible for federal funding. Vendors who understand these requirement are better equipped to compose effective, winning proposals and assist agencies with their goals. E-Rate: Because Computer Literacy Is Not a Luxury, It’s a Requirement The goal of E-rate is to increase connectivity in schools and libraries with telecommunications services, internet access, internal connections and basic maintenance. With federal funding, available at least through 2018, schools and libraries that are eligible can benefit greatly from the E-rate program. Educators will be able to provide the necessary infrastructure with Wi-Fi and next-generation broadband required to provide students with 21st century learning. The digital age demands that we bring America’s libraries and schools into the 21st century, so all students have the tools they need to compete in a global economy ... the connectivity we today enable is not just about education; it is also a matter of preparing learners of all ages for the modern economy. Whether learning in a classroom or receiving job training in a library, computer literacy is not a luxury, it is a requirement. But none of this can happen without high-speed connectivity.Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman Telecommunication & wireless providers, professional & information systems consulting firms, internet technology companies and construction vendors should keep tabs on upcoming projects, multi-year contracts and future agency plans. Contractors can visit the USAC website or simply access Onvia, a single, comprehensive lead source for E-rate and non-E-rate initiatives, agency contact lists and in-depth information on vendors currently winning E-Rate awards. Onvia will deliver over 24,000 E-rate projects over the next 12 months to customers, including bids that do not have a formal bidding process, from all agencies involved in the E-rate program. Now and into the foreseeable future, contractors have many opportunities to win more business with this multi-billion dollar program and help enhance the future of education in the United States.