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K-12

E-Rate Bidding Process Open: What Should Schools Prepare For?

By Aniqah Majid
November 10, 2021

The E-rate funding application window is expected to open in January 2022. Officially known as the Universal Service Schools and Libraries Program, E-rate supports eligible K-12 schools and libraries across America with access to affordable telecommunications and information services. For the program, participants must carry out a competitive bidding process where they select the most cost-effective companies to provide the goods and services they requested.

The challenges brought about by the pandemic and remote/hybrid learning, have highlighted the main issues and resources needed by education institutions. From network connectivity to cybersecurity, schools and libraries have more insight than ever to invest in resources that strengthen their online reach to their students, wherever they are situated.

Though the window is opening soon, the E-rate bidding season has yet to pick up. According to E-rate compliance services firm, Funds for Learning, though most competitive bids will be posted later on in the year, schools and libraries will fair better by starting early with the bidding process. According to the firm’s research, a key contributor in E-rate delivering faster connection speeds at low costs is the increase in competition in Form 470 competitive bidding process.

Girl in video lesson with class.
According to Funds for Learning 11th Annual E-rate Trends Report, 97% of applicants agree that network security should qualify for E-rate support. [Image: Maria Thalassinou, Unsplash].
We spoke with Roger Sands, CEO of Wyebot, about the E-rate bidding process of 2022, and what schools should really be investing in. The company provides wifi assurance to schools and is one of the many companies schools can bid to work with.

As someone not so familiar with the E-Rate bidding, how does the E-rate process work?

The bidding process is designed to increase competition and lower costs. Once an eligible school or library determines what telecommunications goods or services it needs, it files Form 470, and possibly a request for a proposal (RFP). These forms provide a specific, detailed description of what the school or library is looking for, and serve as the formal request for competitive bids. Vendors review the requests and submit bids, outlining how their specific products and services can best support school and library needs. Schools and libraries then select the vendor they want to work with and apply to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) for purchase approval.

Why is E-Rate so important for schools and libraries, and why should they prioritize it when looking into new technology?

Technology touches every part of our lives, and that’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down or reversing. Schools and libraries can use the internet, apps, IoT devices, and more to give students unique learning experiences, make research and studying easier, and prepare them for future careers. E-Rate makes even the latest technologies affordable for any school or library.

COVID has naturally made an impact on E-Rate bidding, the count of Form 470s is lower than it has been in recent years. Why do you think there has been a steady decline in applications?

I think many eligible schools and libraries aren’t aware of how many technologies can be purchased using E-Rate. In the beginning, E-Rate was largely seen as a great way to bring high-speed WiFi to schools, and it is, but there are so many more products and services available that can help students, teachers, librarians, administrators, and staff. I think we need to do a better job sharing that information.

Has COVID highlighted anything specifically in bidding behavior?

The government realized the additional burden that was suddenly put on the IT staff, and allowed additional time for certain forms.

There are a variety of technology offerings and solutions available to schools right now. What kinds of technology do you think schools and libraries should be investing in? Especially during this time of remote and hybrid learning?

It’s important to keep students and all library users connected and engaged – with each other, with teachers, and with the world. Technologies that support that – whether by improving the WiFi, providing apps or VR simulations for an out-of-the-classroom experience, or more – are a good investment.

It’s also critical for schools and libraries to have remote access to their WiFi networks, so any technology that provides that is key right now. With remote access, IT can analyze, troubleshoot, and optimize networks even if teams are unable to be onsite. This keeps everything running smoothly, and makes sure that end-users (students, staff, teachers, etc.) have uninterrupted access to everything that depends on the WiFi – which is a lot.

Schools and libraries will currently be in the process of planning their bids. From previous years, what factors should they consider before making their bids, and how should they best prepare for this season?

Ideally, they all have access to historical network data and can see how network behavior and performance have changed over time. This includes the performance of connected devices and infrastructure. This data helps decision-makers predict future needs, which is great when it comes to preparing E-Rate bids. If anyone doesn’t already have access to that data, I recommend taking a month to gather as many data points as possible from the entire network, and then use that information to decide what goods and services are most needed.

Is there anything schools and libraries should avoid when placing bids/sending applications during the E-Rate process?

E-Rate is a time-based process, so the sooner one can start the better it is. Our recommendation is to not wait until the last minute to submit Form 470/471. There is a 28-days waiting period after Form 470 has been submitted. Similarly, there is a deadline to submit Form 486. On the process side, it is always a good idea to state “equivalent products are acceptable”, to allow an open bidding process, and prevent PIA queries.

It is very important to choose not only the right Category under which a selected product or service belongs but also the correct “Service Type”. Having either of these incorrect can result in funding request denial from USAC. Since USAC does not allow amendments to a Form 470 that has already been submitted, it is often good practice to reference an RFP linked externally, even if it is an empty one. Some changes can be indicated via an RFP amendment.

Why is WiFi automation necessary, and how do you get Wifi Automation technology through E-Rate?

School and library WiFi networks often consist of hundreds of devices – everything from access points to laptops, projectors, printers, thermostats, and more. These devices send thousands of data packets a second, and those packets have the information that IT needs to understand network health and behavior. It’s impossible for a human to analyze that much data, identify issues and their root causes, and resolve them in real-time, yet, that’s exactly what is needed for reliable, optimized WiFi. This is why WiFi Automation is necessary.

WiFi Automation platforms automate the analytics process. Depending on the platform, they can keep eyes on the entire network ecosystem 24/7, automatically alert IT to any issues, and provide actionable resolutions for quick troubleshooting, often before end-users are affected. This saves schools and libraries significant amounts of time and money. Wyebot’s Wireless Intelligence Platform is an award-winning, vendor agnostic WiFi Automation platform and it is E-Rate eligible.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention which I have not covered?

In case there is a need to amend a Form 470, one would need to submit a new Form 470. A commonly-used trick is to use a nickname, and then later change the nickname to “Cancelled”. This will indicate to bidding vendors to respond to the correct/updated Form 470.

Featured Image: SCREEN POST, Unsplash. 

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