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    Upgrade Your School's Telecommunication Systems Affordably with eRate

    By: Jeff S. Olson
    September 14, 2015

    telecommunication_systemsWhen it comes to adopting new telecommunications technology, school districts often find themselves on the outside looking in. While private corporations have the financial resources, for the most part, to upgrade telecommunications systems as needed, schools aren't always as fortunate. School districts are at the mercy of public funding as determined by local and federal government officials.

    This leaves many school districts in the position of tightly controlling their budgets to ensure student needs are being met. Schools also need to offer access to 21st century technology to help improve student learning and prepare them for future careers that will undoubtedly require familiarity with current technology. One solution for school districts is take advantage of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) eRate program.

    The Need for Upgrades

    Most of America's school districts recognize the need to upgrade telecommunications systems in schools. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that not long ago (2009), 97% of classrooms had at least one computer, and Internet access was available in 93% of those classrooms and schools. More recently, NPR cited a 2014 survey that found half of all the nation's K-12 schools allowed students to bring smartphones and tablets to class for research and shooting videos.

    The need to accommodate digital learning is on the rise. Not only will students benefit from early introductions to the telecommunication devices they will one day use in their careers, but it also offers teachers a chance to better customize lessons to individual students and open up more avenues of learning. However, the problem many districts face is lack of funding. The Boston Globe noted that a local school district, Needham, was upgrading its technology in phases because of the cost. The article cited the time frame as "several years," meaning telecommunications systems in a school district (at any given time) are at least five years old, if not older.

    Fortunately, there is an affordable solution available to school districts that provide access to telecom upgrades. There are many reasons to upgrade, but highest among them is the chance to upgrade sooner - and do so without breaking the bank.

    Meet Student and Teacher Needs Now, and in the Future

    Whether your school district's telecommunications systems are currently outdated or growth is placing increasing demands on IT infrastructure, the FCC's eRate program offers a variety of service programs designed to assist school districts. The eRate program has two funding priority groups for available upgrades, which breakdown as follows:

    • Priority 1: Telecommunications services, telecommunications and Internet access
    • Priority 2: Internal connections and basic maintenance of those connections

    The eligible upgrades within priority group one cover Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems, mobile phone service for district employees, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) access, and T-1, T-3 and satellite services. Internet access covers areas such as web connectivity and select services that are integral components to Internet access.

    When it comes to priority group two coverage, the eRate program offers discounted prices on products such as routers, switches, hubs and wiring. These products must be located at the applicant site and be a necessity for the transportation of information to classrooms and public areas of a school or campus.

    The eRate program also offers partial and conditional eligibility for discounts on products and services such as file servers (for email), phone services delivered to church-operated schools and repair and upkeep services.

    Get What You Need at an Affordable Price

    In a perfect world, every school district would simply make the purchase they need to provide students, teachers and administrators with the latest telecommunications services. However, the budget for most school districts is not unlimited. The eRate program had its federal funding cap increased to $3.9 billion for FY 2015. That money is split between priority one and priority two groups, with $2.9 billion allotted to the former while the latter received a boost to $1 billion this year.

    The primary funding for the eRate program comes from the federal government and the telecommunications service providers supporting the program. Telecom companies must contribute to the federal program based on a percentage of their interstate and international end-user revenues.

    Accessing eRate Funds

    If your school district is looking to upgrade outdated systems or expand services, there are three simple steps involved in the process. First, you need to submit a request for competitive bids for the specific service or product your school needs. After reviewing the bids you receive, select your preferred vendor and submit an application to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) for approval.

    If your submission is approved, a funding commitment is approved by the USAC. After the vendor you've chosen provides you with the selected services, you (or the vendor) can submit a request for reimbursement.

    Adopting 21st technology and keeping up with the growth of digital learning doesn't have to diminish your school district budget. The federal eRate program is here to lend a helping hand to ensure students and teachers have access to the latest telecommunications services needed to support effective learning.

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    Topics: Education, Phone Systems, Telecom, Budget, IT infastructure, Upgrading, telecommunication
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