Broadband Leader Series: Milan Eaton, State E-rate Coordinator

How one state used matching funds to increase access

As the State E-rate Director, Milan Eaton has been working on the Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative since it began in 2016. He’s been a tireless advocate for schools across the state, doing everything he can to make sure school districts have affordable, high-quality broadband so that students can use digital learning technologies. Besides working to support school districts with their E-rate applications on a one-on-one basis, he has been a crucial advocate for state matching funds so all Arizona schools have scalable infrastructure for today and into the future.

Tell us about your journey from working in the telecom industry to your role now as State E-rate Director for the Arizona Department of Education. What experiences led you to become passionate about expanding broadband access?

I was on the vendor side for 10 to 12 years, where I sold routers, switches, and cabling. Then I switched to the carrier side for many years. While I was there, I discovered how frustrating it was to work with schools that were willing to pay a high price for broadband, but still couldn’t get the infrastructure they needed for their students. When the opportunity to join the Arizona Department of Education (AZED) came up, I took the position because I believed there was an opportunity to get these schools the Internet that they needed.

What were the biggest challenges when you began working on the Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative in 2016? And what are the greatest challenges in connecting the remaining schools in Arizona that lack high-speed connectivity?

I joined AZED around the time that the FCC passed the Second E-rate Modernization Order. One of the policy revisions included the “State Matching Fund” provision, which stated that the FCC would provide up to an additional 10% in E-rate funding for special construction costs for broadband upgrades if state governments provided up to 10% to support schools with the projects. I knew this was an important opportunity for schools in our state, but the challenge was finding the funding.

EducationSuperHighway helped me research all the possible funding sources from the state. We found the Arizona Universal Services Fund, managed by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), was the best fit. I worked with the ACC and proposed the state matching fund to upgrade school districts to Commissioner Andy Tobin. I made it clear that with this 10% stake, we could receive up to ninety percent stake from the federal government. This source of funding is unbelievable to most people in districts and even in the legislature, but it has been driving the prices down incredibly for places that ordinarily could not receive this level of Internet access.

After we established the fund, the challenges shifted. First, we had to get school districts to understand that we were here to help and it wouldn’t cost them anything for this support. Many of the schools that need support don’t have the technical people they need to make these networking changes, so then we work with them to review the request for proposal responses, and make the decision to select a vendor. It takes a lot of support through the entire process.

After the funding process is complete, the challenge moving forward is to facilitate communication between the vendors and schools. I often step in to ensure that every project is moving forward, the proper forms have been filed, and timelines have been put into place. Without these steps, nothing would be completed in time to get funding.

As the State E-rate Director, you wear many hats and work with various stakeholders. What is your favorite part of your job and why?

My favorite part of the job is visiting the schools after we complete the project upgrades – after the forms, approvals, and construction. The district people look at you and say wow. For example, Heber-Overgaard upgraded this year from 77 kbps/student to 500 kbps/student – and they will pay about a quarter of the price of what they were paying before.

I’m excited when the district staff members, who were originally unsure about this process, get excited – the upgrade opens the school to digital learning opportunities they didn’t have before. This is a great example of how we just need to provide the pathway and tools, and challenge these schools to use them once they have access.

Which groups or resources are most helpful to you in your day-to-day work, and how do you work with them?

EducationSuperHighway is at the top of my list! The next group would be the Arizona E-rate consultants – including Nicely Done Consulting, GetFunded, Yavapai County Educational Technology Consortium (YCETC), and Infiniti Consulting. After we trained on what we need to do and why, they were extremely involved with the process. They joined every project call, met with stakeholders, and presented on the program to educate others.

As State E-rate Director, you’ve visited many schools across the state. Tell us about a memorable experience you had working with a school to upgrade.

Every school is very special. Yuma schools were some of the first to take advantage of the new funding, which they used to upgrade 31 schools and their Wide Area Network (WAN).

Yavapai was my first county-wide consortium. I got everyone’s buy-in on the pricing with the bigger project, including the big providers. It can be difficult to get a provider to bid on one school, but by combining it with an entire county, they become more likely to bid.

For example, Little Red School House had trouble getting bids, but when put together with Santa Cruz county, they got multiple bids. As I said earlier, we can pay to make these upgrades and provide the right tools, but the schools have to step up to the challenge to commit to the project and maintain the network.

You were crucial in helping to pass the state matching fund in Arizona – working across the Governor’s office, the Department of Education, Service Providers, and Corporation Commission to secure the funding. Do you have any advice for state leaders and policymakers who are looking to advocate for expanded broadband for students and teachers in their own states?

My advice is don’t quit. You just need to convince your legislators that the 10% investment for the schools has the huge reward of 90% funding from the federal government. Keep reiterating information on these state matching funds because everyone should be on board after hearing about it. If your elected officials are not willing to put 10 cents on the dollar for your schools, pay attention – and remember, you can vote them out!

Find out more information about a state matching fund.