Much of the teaching and learning in schools today is tied to technology, making internet access a necessity and a priority.
That connectivity comes at a high cost, but it’s made more affordable to school districts through a federal program.
The E-rate program, from the Federal Communications Commission and the Universal Service Administrative Co., has helped fund telecommunications and information services in participating schools and libraries for 20 years now. It pays up to $3.9 billion yearly, according to the FCC.
Participants must apply annually and can receive discounts from 20 to 90 percent, based on poverty levels and location. They can receive funding for category one services, which include phone and internet access, and/or category two services, which are for hardware, maintenance and support. Servers and devices are not covered, said Rose Powell, the Bibb district’s executive director of technology services.
Bibb County’s five year E-rate budget for both categories is $3.3 million, and the federal program covers $2.8 million of it. Houston County is responsible for paying 20 percent of its $4.18 million, five-year E-rate budget, said Brian Trent, director of technology for the district.
Powell said local and state funds alone couldn’t cover those costs.
“It’s a great program, and Bibb County has taken advantage of it,” she said. “We maximize our district’s resources through E-rate funding.”
Bibb is using E-rate funding to upgrade wireless access points in all its schools, which will better support laptops, tablets and other devices in the classroom, Powell said. Another E-rate project helps the district manage its network bandwidth services so internet services are uninterrupted.
“E-rate supports our future-ready classrooms with the connectivity for the internet,” Powell said. “All the programs provide a robust infrastructure. E-rate is the means by which we’re able to provide that infrastructure for our students.”
Through the program, Houston is rewiring the data cables in 10 older schools and replacing battery backups in its network closets, Trent said. The district is also updating the wireless standards in all its schools, so they can handle the large number of personal wireless devices.
“It definitely helps us stretch our dollars a bit further, and it allows us to continue to improve our infrastructure,” he said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the needs right now so we don’t ever hit the bottlenecks” in connectivity.
The E-rate program is phasing out coverage of voice services. Bibb County used to be reimbursed 90 percent for phone access, but now receives just 30 percent, Powell said.
In preparation for the elimination of that funding, Houston is moving away from landlines to a system where phone calls go through the same data lines as the internet. Those changes should be in place by the start of the school year.