Federal E-Rate Program Spells Opportunity for Partners Targeting K-12 Schools

In fiscal 2016, K-12 schools and libraries across the U.S. spent a total of $4.9 billion on services that were paid for in part by E-rate, the federal program that helps subsidize investments in telecommunications and Internet services. To APC by Schneider Electric partners, that figure should spell one word: opportunity.

The $4.9 billion figure comes from the 2016 E-rate Trends Report by the E-rate consulting firm Funds for Learning, which collects data on E-rate expenditures and conducts an annual survey of E-rate recipients. The 2016 report is based on a survey of 1,016 such recipients.

E-rate is the more common name for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal government initiative launched in 1997 to help improve telecommunications and Internet services at K-12 schools and libraries throughout the country. Through E-rate, schools are eligible to receive rebates ranging from 20% to 90% of the costs of installing and maintaining telecommunications and Internet services, depending on the relative wealth of the school district.

E-rate rebates make it far easier for partners to sell technology projects to K-12 schools, as they can dramatically change the return-on-investment equation. And while the program is intended to fund telecommunications services and Internet access, it also covers much of the infrastructure required to support those services. That includes not only wireless access points, switches and routers, but also lots of APC by Schneider Electric equipment: racks, PDUs and UPSs (a topic we wrote about last year).

Here again, that spells opportunity. Say you’re pitching a new wireless LAN project to a school. Now you can also sell them racks to properly house their equipment and PDUs and UPSs to supply power protection – an increasingly crucial aspect given that schools are increasingly relying on online resources for teaching. They can’t afford downtime.

The E-rate Trends Report shows just how crucial E-rate is to helping K-12 schools fund such projects. Nearly all respondents (94%) say they will continue to apply for funding in the future while 85% say E-rate is “vital” to their Internet connectivity goals. More than three quarters (77%) say they connect more students to the Internet because of E-rate and 76% say they have faster Internet because of the program. Clearly, there’s a lot of love for E-rate.

Partners should love it, too, because the report spells out a number of areas where it presents them with sound opportunities. Wireless is one that jumps out. The report shows that nearly half of respondents (44%) have Wi-Fi networks that are four or more years old, while another 2% have no Wi-Fi at all. A four-year-old Wi-Fi network would undoubtedly benefit from an upgrade, given how much faster the latest Wi-Fi gear is.

And it’s clear that schools want or need faster Wi-Fi. More than a third of respondents (34%) say they expect Internet bandwidth to increase by 50% over the next 3 years while 31% expect an increase of 75% or more. That’s an opportunity not just for big wireless projects, but all the aforementioned racks, PDUs and UPSs to ensure it all stays up and running through any power disruptions.

Partners that take it upon themselves to become E-rate experts will have even greater opportunity, as the study makes it clear that schools need help navigating E-rate waters. Like many government programs, E-rate requires customers to fill out lots of forms and can get complicated.

About a third of respondents say they use an E-rate consultant to help them, mainly to tap the experience of those consultants (92%) and because E-rate is too confusing for them to handle on their own (71%). It could be worth getting someone on your staff up to speed on the ins and outs of E-rate to help customers out. It’d be a new revenue stream for you and a differentiator that’d likely help you sell E-rate funded projects.

The non-profit Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) administers E-rate on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission. To learn more about the program, check out the USAC’s E-rate page. I think you’ll agree it represents significant opportunity. For information on APC’s programs for partners supporting K-12 customers, visit our K-12 page on APC Partner Central.

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