More than 25 years after its launch, the federal E-rate program continues to be the primary mechanism for delivering the broadband connectivity schools need to support high-quality digital learning. Over the years, E-rate applicants have helped shape the program by providing critical feedback on their connectivity needs — and Funds For Learning’s Annual E-rate Survey is a central means of amplifying their voices.

For 14 years, Funds For Learning’s E-rate Survey gives K-12 leaders an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback about fundamental aspects of the E-rate, which can influence the program’s direction. Funds For Learning submits the responses from its survey directly to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the E-rate program.

A Transformational Program

The E-rate provides billions of dollars in discounts on the cost of internet access and “internal connections,” or the wiring, routers, switches, wireless access points, and other equipment needed to support high-speed connectivity, to eligible schools and libraries each year. In 2023, more than 130,000 applicants requested a total of $3 billion in discounts from the program.

When the E-rate program was created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, only 14 percent of the nation’s K-12 classrooms were connected to the Internet. Since then, the program has succeeded in transforming education by enabling schools and libraries to acquire affordable high-speed broadband service.

Today, nearly three-quarters of K-12 school districts provide internet bandwidth at a minimum rate of 1 megabit per second, according to the 2023 Report on School Connectivity from Connect K12. Despite making significant technological inroads over the past few decades, schools still rely on E-rate funding to support and upgrade their network infrastructure.

New Cybersecurity Pilot

The E-rate program has evolved significantly over the years in response to applicants’ changing needs. A prime example is the brand-new Cybersecurity Pilot Program, which the FCC approved on June 6, 2024.

The pilot program is a three-year initiative aiming to help schools and libraries protect themselves against cyber threats by providing up to $200 million in Universal Services Fund support. It will provide discounts for advanced firewalls, endpoint protection, identity authentication, and monitoring systems to bolster the cyber defenses of school and library networks.

E-rate applicants have been requesting support for cybersecurity defenses for many years. In Funds For Learning’s Annual E-rate Survey, more than 95 percent of respondents over the last six years said they believe cybersecurity products and services should be eligible for E-rate support.

In the 2023 survey, more than 100 applicants shared their individual opinions about the importance of cybersecurity — and this feedback played a key role in guiding the FCC’s decision.

“We desperately need E-rate funding to support purchasing cybersecurity products, equipment, and professional services. It is one of the biggest threats to students and staff, but costs are so great that most systems cannot afford what they need,” one applicant wrote. Another said: “It is a lot cheaper to pay to protect than recover [from a cyber-attack]!”

Other Recent Feedback

In addition to collecting feedback from applicants, Funds For Learning’s Annual E-rate Survey gathers data on program usage. The survey information is compiled in an Annual E-rate Trends Report.

Here are some of the key findings from the 2023 E-rate Trends Report:

  • Based on applicant feedback, it appears the E-rate is meeting its goals of improving connectivity for schools and libraries. Nearly nine in 10 respondents (88 percent) said they have faster internet connections because of the program, and 70 percent said the E-rate’s competitive bidding process lowers pricing.
  • Despite the program’s success, many applicants still see the E-rate program as a complicated process. Only 56 percent agreed the program is achieving its goal of making the application process fast, simple, and efficient — and just 49 percent described the E-rate portal as easy to use.
  • Beyond cybersecurity, there are other ways that applicants would like to see the Eligible Services List expanded. For instance, more than 80 percent of applicants think Voice over IP equipment should be E-rate eligible.
  • Although a separate pilot project helped schools and libraries provide Wi-Fi hotspots and other solutions to extend broadband into students’ homes during the pandemic, the survey suggests there is still demand for such a program. Nearly three in four respondents (74 percent) said insufficient internet access at home is a “significant” issue in their community — and 72 percent said the E-rate would be the most practical way to support off-campus internet service for student learning.

Without the E-rate, schools and libraries wouldn’t have the high-speed connectivity they need to drive 21st century teaching and learning. Tools such as Funds For Learning’s Annual E-rate Survey are critical in ensuring that the program continues to meet applicants’ evolving needs.

The 2024 survey is open through June 30, 2024 and can be accessed here.

About the author

John Harrington is CEO of Funds For Learning, a nationwide E-Rate compliance firm that specializes in helping schools and libraries across the USA receive federal E-rate funding for Internet access, a vital service that reduces the digital divide and enhances educational opportunities for millions of students.