One of the most important features of E-rate is that it allots $3.9 billion annually to help schools upgrade their internal networks and implement Wi-Fi in every classroom. That amounts to $150 in Category 2 funding per student. This is a critical resource now, because schools need robust Wi-Fi to keep up with rising digital learning demands, including 1:1 device policies and multimedia learning programs.
To date, only 50% of that available E-rate funding has been utilized. Since over 10,000 schools nationwide still report insufficient Wi-Fi, and Category 2 funding is not guaranteed indefinitely, it’s important for districts to spend their funding by 2020. If your district has yet to take advantage of some or all of its Category 2 funding, here are 6 tips to help you successfully upgrade your internal network.
1. Find out how much you have in Category 2 funds
Getting a sense of your district’s remaining Category 2 funds is a powerful first step to increasing each school’s Wi-Fi access. Resources such as Compare & Connect K-12 can help you do the following:
- Understand how much Category 2 funding your district has available.
- Find vendors who are offering Category 2 solutions in your state.
- Access RFP templates and other tools to help you with your upgrade.
2. Start planning your upgrade
The ideal trajectory is to start with your Category 1 connectivity, then to upgrade your internal wired network, and lastly to upgrade your wireless network using Category 2 funds. This will eliminate all potential bottlenecks and allow your wireless network to operate at its full potential.
As you plan your upgrade, think about the big picture. What do your future plans look like? Don’t focus only on your immediate digital learning needs; also consider future growth and expansion. Making smart purchasing decisions now can save money in the long run
3. Factor in the funding year timeline
Summer: This is the best time to start assessing your needs.
Fall: You should now be in the planning phases, where you design the upgrade and release your E-rate form 470 or RFP.
Winter: After the 28-day window for your 470 closes, you evaluate the bids you’ve received.
Spring: This is when you can select a provider and apply for funding through E-rate Form 471.
Start of the Funding Year: You receive your funding and begin implementing your upgrade.
4. Go out to bid for your bandwidth upgrade
While you can upgrade your internal network by filing only a Form 470, here are some cases where an RFP is a beneficial:
- When required by state or local laws
- When selecting the “no preference” drop-down on the manufacturer
- When cabling installation is required (or labor in general)
- When requesting a managed Wi-Fi service
While bidding, if you mention any specific manufacturers or models of equipment, make sure to follow up those mentions with the language “or equivalent” to avoid violating E-rate’s fair and competitive bidding rules.
Also note that if you write an RFP, you must attach it to your E-rate Form 470, and if you do not write an RFP, you still must submit a Form 470.
5. Arm yourself with the best deal
Before you file your paperwork, make sure you understand which pricing and service options are available to you. As a rule of thumb, competitive pricing should amount to a significant percentage of the MSRP.
You can ensure that you’re getting the best deal possible by:
- Talking to your vendor pre-bid about your upgrade plans and the services they offer.
- Soliciting bids–E-rate allows that if you get 0 or 1 responses, you can solicit bids from any local vendors that are able to serve you.
- Working with ESH to discuss your specific challenges and formulate a negotiation strategy together.
6. Form a cross-functional committee to evaluate proposals
While not required, having multiple sets of eyes on bid proposals can be extremely helpful. Some potential members of your cross-functional evaluation team may include:
- A purchasing/business office agent who focuses on contracts and cost
- An IT director who focuses on technical specifications and capabilities
- A project manager who focuses on functionality
It’s important to note, however, that your evaluation committee cannot include:
- School board members
- Persons with ties to service providers
Have more questions about your Category 2 upgrade? Visit our Upgrade Toolkit for more free tools, resources, and support.