GUEST COLUMN | by Lori Fadok
In the spring of 2012, Funds For Learning conducted a nationwide survey of E-rate applicants, seeking stakeholder views on the state of E-rate and their opinions on technology priorities amidst increasing demand for program funds.
Designed to gather and provide feedback to the FCC and other program policy makers, the 10 question survey was completed by 636 E-rate applicants across the nation. The respondent sample represented a range of school sizes, discount levels, and locations which closely mirrored the distribution of the overall population of E-rate applicants.
While the complete results of the survey have been published in a white paper available for download here, below are some key findings from the effort.
E-rate is Critical to Applicants’ Success
Approximately 90 percent of respondents stated that the E-rate program is critical to their success but at the same time, approximately 70 percent believed that the annual amount of funds available for distribution via the E-rate program is inadequate. Looking at E-rate funding year 2012, it appears that both figures are justified by the dollar amount of funding requests compared to the amount of available funding. In 2012, the annual funding cap for E-rate reimbursements was raised to $2.338 billion. That same year, the demand for E-rate funding exceeded $5 billion. This is the second time since 1997 that program demand has eclipsed the $5 billion mark.
Increase in BYOD Initiatives
Nearly 90 percent of respondents indicated that they expect that their need for connectivity and infrastructure services will increase as they adopt digital textbook and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives.
However, only 41 percent of respondents indicated that that their current Internet connectivity levels were adequate for their current needs and increasing demand.
Predictability of Funding
The survey asked applicants to rank four aspects of E-rate funding – predictability of funding, speed of funding decisions, amount of funding commitments, and flexibility of funding commitments – in order of least to most important to their organization.
The results are as follows:
- Predictability (i.e. Knowing exactly how much E-rate funding your organization can count on receiving each year) – 38 percent
- Amount (i.e. Receiving as much E-rate funding as possible) – 36 percent
- Speed (e.g. Receiving a funding commitment decision letter by no later than July 1) – 19 percent
- Flexibility (i.e. Flexibility to prioritize your own funding requests, if USAC does not have enough money to fund all of them) – 7 percent
Flexibility of funding commitment was decidedly the least important aspect to respondents. Approximately 62 percent of survey responses listed flexibility as the least important aspect of E-rate funding to their organization.
Echoing the prediction of increased demand for connectivity services as a result of BYOD initiatives, 58 percent of respondents predicted an increase with their telecommunications and Internet services budgets.
However, while 41 percent believed that their current Internet connectivity levels were adequate for their current needs and increasing demand, only 10 percent indicated that their telephony, data, and WAN infrastructure is “ready for tomorrow.”
Approximately one-third of respondents indicated that their data and WAN infrastructures were lagging, with almost half reporting that their telephony infrastructure is not up to current standards.
Respondents were asked to prioritize aspects of the E-rate program, choosing which eligible service they would deem the most important.
From most important to least:
- Internet Access (including Cloud Services) – 39 percent
- Local Telephone – 22 percent
- Internal Connections – 14 percent
- Wide Area Network – 13 percent
- Basic Maintenance services for Internal Connections – 8 percent
- Cellular Phone Service – 3 percent
Cellular services were revealed to be the least important, followed by WAN (38 and 28 percent, respectively).
When asked which E-rate service applicants would select if they could only receive funding in one category of service, respondents indicated a desire for Priority One services: Internet Access and telecommunications (42 and 39 percent, respectively) over Priority Two Internal Connections and Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections (14 and 5 percent, respectively.)
The survey gave the respondents the opportunity to share their opinions on ways to improve the current E-rate program’s rules and procedures.
As indicated by the 70 percent who believed that current E-rate funding is inadequate, almost 60 percent of the applicants who responded stated that the FCC should focus on increasing the amount of funding available in the E-rate program.
Respondents also favored the simplification of E-rate forms as one of the most effective ways to positively impact the program. Thirty-seven percent of respondents favored the creation of a simpler “Form 471 EZ” application, and 28 percent of applicants liked the idea of a Form 471 application that was good for three years.
Though the respondents were asked to be critical of the program and highlight what they believe to be flaws in the system, many expressed gratitude for the program. Even with the complexity of the program and shrinking supply in the face of rising demand, ninety percent believe E-rate funding is critical.
They are right.
The $5 billion in E-rate discounts on connectivity services and communications infrastructure requested for FY2012 represent over 52.2 million students – 95 percent of K-12 students nationwide.
Every school and library should have access to E-rate funding. Every school should have Internet connectivity capable of meeting the demand of current technology trends. However, if E-rate funding is to continue to serve a direct and critical impact on over 95 percent students in the country, adjustments to the status quo must be considered. Our hope that is through this survey and its findings, the program administrators and policy makers will be proactive in making the changes necessary to ensure the sustainability of the program for years to come.