The E-rate is a great program, improving the lives of millions of Americans by helping to deliver faster Internet, at a lower cost, to schools and libraries. E-rate dollars support 97% of America’s K-12 students and applicants consider E-rate funding vital to their communications needs.
Here, near the end of the 2017 filing window, and in the midst of concerns and changes, it is good to be reminded of what makes this program so strong. The first and greatest strength of the E-rate is the mission, itself, connecting learners (of all ages) to the Internet. It is a noble cause that impacts everyone in our country, and it is worthy of our time and energy and our very best efforts.
Just being a good cause, alone, is not enough. Ultimately, the E-rate is such a strong program because of its fundamental architecture. It is built from four solid principles that combine to create a powerful and resilient structure.
- Paying discounts
- Making local decisions
- Encouraging competition
- Supporting outcomes
Applicants who are new to the E-rate program quickly discover that it’s structure is unique. This is not a grant program. It is a discount program. That simple distinction makes a world of difference. Applicants have a greater incentive to make cost-effective decisions and to only purchase the goods and services that meet their most pressing needs. This guards against waste, fraud and abuse and helps insure that program dollars are directed where they are needed most. Furthermore, because discounts can vary, more E-rate dollars can be targeted towards the communities that need them the most.
Making Local Decisions
Most state and federal programs come with giant strings attached, along with priorities that are mandated from the Governor’s Mansion or the White House. The E-rate is the rarest of programs: it lets local decision makers make local decisions. School district and library leaders can assess their local needs and make local planning decisions based on what will serve their local constituents best. This means that E-rate dollars are invested where local leaders need them, not just where the state or federal government tells them they must go.
From its inception, the E-rate program has been all about driving competition. It hardly seems revolutionary now, but twenty years ago it was unique for vendors to have a single stop source of opportunities. Instead of requiring vendors to individually contact 25,000 applicants, the E-rate marketplace provides them with a single point of entry to support K-12 schools and library systems. This helps level the playing field between large and small service providers, lowers prices, and opens the door for new technologies.
The E-rate program’s eligible services framework is simple: provide discounts for “the stuff” required to connect students and library patrons to the Internet. The means of achieving that outcome has changed dramatically over the years. (For example, there was no such thing as Wi-Fi the first year of the E-rate program.) By focusing on the outcome, rather than a requirement that applicants use X technology or Y vendor, the E-rate has remained, and will continue to remain, relevant for many years.
The E-rate is transforming our communities for the better by providing broadband Internet into our schools and libraries. As we look towards the future of the E-rate program, let us remain focused on the great framework with which we get to work. The use of discounts guards against excessive spending, while varying the discount rates provides extra support to those who need it the most. Local decision making eliminates one-size-fits-all Washington, DC, decisions, and directs the dollars to where they will have the greatest impact. Finally, competition and a focus on outcomes encourages new solutions and better prices so that everyone truly wins.
Certainly, the E-rate program is not without its challenges, but the fundamental nature of the program remains as strong as ever.