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How Fiber Fills The Bandwidth Gap In Minnesota Schools | Arvig Skip to main content

By April 18, 2024Whitepapers15 min read
Whitepapers More Bandwidth to Schools: Header

How Fiber Fills The Bandwidth Gap In Minnesota Schools

HOW ARVIG USES E-RATE TO BRING BETTER INTERNET TO THE CLASSROOM

Solving the E-Rate Disconnect
Students with the best access to information and learning resources have a clear-cut advantage. For schools, fiber bandwidth and related technology are now “table stakes” to global competitiveness. But there are big roadblocks.

IT Directors are severely challenged to put students and faculty on fiber without:

  • Excessive IT staff workload
  • Overwhelming planning and deployment hurdles
  • Prohibitively high implementation costs

Through its E-Rate program, the federal government will subsidize up to 90 percent of ALL the costs of enterprise-grade big bandwidth (including fiber) to students, educators and support staff. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program pays for more than just the internet connection. It also provides reimbursements for the services and hardware needed to manage and secure this educational tool, including construction, [fiber] locating and maintenance services.

The FCC has set the minimum required bandwidth for schools at 1 Mbps per student. While significant progress has been made in recent years to supply or exceed the needed speeds, gaps remain in districts around the nation, especially in sparsley populated rural areas.

If it were simple, by now, every school would be connected to fast, high-speed internet. The majority of E-Rate fiber applications, however, are delayed—or declined— for application errors or poor project specifications.

To avoid common pitfalls and streamline your students’ access to fiber and interactive digital learning resources, start the E-Rate application process early.

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FILE A SUCCESSFUL APPLICATION WITH THESE TIPS FROM ARVIG
For school district IT Directors, Minnesota-based Arvig is the preferred source for E-Rate subsidized fiber. Arvig delivers 10-Gigabit or greater symmetrical speed through its stable, secure fiber network infrastructure. The company has extensive experience providing services to schools and libraries, with a special focus on providing fast, stable networks on schedule, on or under budget and that meet the requirements for E-Rate qualifying funding.

| Your children need all the advantages they can get to compete in tomorrow’s global job market.

BANDWIDTH CAN MAKE OR BREAK STUDENTS’ WORLDWIDE COMPETITIVE EDGE
Just as businesses need broadband to compete, students need broadband to learn and succeed in a global economy. Developing countries are investing billions of dollars into education initiatives. The United States is losing its competitive strength; some argue it already has. U.S. schools, especially those in rural settings, small districts, charter and private schools can be challenged to provide the high-performance IT infrastructure needed to support digital learning tools and services.

Added to the demand for competitiveness is the challenge of a changing environment. Students and their educators are coming to rely on digital learning programs. Everything is moving toward the cloud. Cloud computing has dramatically changed the IT service landscape. Upstream data rates can no longer be slower than downstream rates. Upload speed is important for many applications, including posting content online from social media platforms, streaming live video, video calling and accessing cloud based applications.

For most schools, bandwidth is the critical component, not servers and computers. Schools’ bandwidth demand will quickly grow to a point only fiber can meet. The demand rate is predicted to be 50% Year-over-Year (YoY). Upstream rates are probably already maxed out for schools not on fiber.

Internet service that can keep dozens of administrators and teachers happy, not to mention hundreds or thousands of students, can be expensive. Some schools manage multiple circuits, some with multiple service contractors. The billing is complicated.

For Education IT Directors, the horizon seems farther off; the ground is shifting. With this technology shift, the pressure on IT Directors and their staff to deliver stable bandwidth is ratcheting up, bringing greater pain at each turn.

IT Director pain is one thing. Poor education resources that lead to low economic opportunity for students is quite another.

TEAM UP WITH A SERVICE PROVIDER WHO UNDERSTANDS THE IMPACT OF FIBER
Telecommunications services represent a large share of the technology budget for many districts, making the best available service options—fiber optic internet, for example—seem out of reach.

| The reality is, however, access to scalable, redundant, “always on” fiber networks is more possible and cost-effective than ever.

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E-Rate Answers Schools’ Need for (Bandwidth) Speed
E-Rate, also known as the Schools and Libraries program, provides discounts ranging from 20% to 90% on the cost of internet access and telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries. The average savings is 40%.

As with all good government programs, there are hoops to jump through. Successful enrollment and participation depend on more than just what you know. They also depend on how you participate. The more advanced IT programs learn how to get maximum value from E-Rate.

To understand the process and its pitfalls, we will look at the process from two perspectives, that of the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) and of the Billing Entity (School or District)—your reality versus the government’s reality.

How the Program Works From The Government Point of View
Congress allocates billions of dollars to the E-Rate program through Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight. The FCC delegates E-Rate administration to the USAC which in turn operates the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USAC website walks applicants through the steps needed to access subsidy funding.

The process is straightforward; the USAC site works hard to keep things simple. It explains the school’s initial steps to acquire a Billed Entity Number (BEN). The BEN is a unique number assigned by USAC to each billed entity that pays for services (school, library, etc.). After creating an account to manage the application process, schools (or their hired consultant) can begin the process of applying for E-Rate funding.

A SIMPLE COMMODITIZED PROCESS
The first step is to file or post FCC Form 470. This action begins a competitive bid for needed services: the internet connection itself and even the internal hardware and services needed to make it available to end-users. The process can begin at any time and a consultant can do it for you. The form stipulates whether proposals should be for Category 1 or Category 2 products and services. Category 1 services include data transmission services and/or internet access. Category 2 services include internal connections, managed internal broadband services and basic maintenance of internal connections.

Whitepapers More Bandwidth to Schools: Bidding Process

Bidding Process Criteria

  • All bidders must be treated the same.
  • No bidder can have advance knowledge of the project information.
  • There are no secrets in the process—such as information shared with one bidder but not with others—and all bidders must know what is required of them.
  • With limited exceptions, service providers and potential service providers cannot give gifts to applicants.
  • In addition, the value of free services (e.g., price reductions, promotional offers, free products) generally must be deducted from the pre-discount cost of funding requests.
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The competitive bid period must last 28 days, and when closed, the BEN billed entity can choose the best vendor for their need, and price must be a highly-weighted factor. Price is not the only factor, but it is a primary factor. USAC provides several tips and suggestions for selecting a service provider.

If you intend to participate in the E-Rate program, the contract for broadband service must have been generated through the FCC Form 470 competitive bidding process. It is important to note that qualified service providers may contact you with questions about the bid and suggest ways to add even more value or capability. Their unique abilities and insight add competitive value, not just their price.

After choosing a provider and signing the contract, schools or their consultants must submit FCC Form 471 to apply for discounts when the application filing window opens. This period begins about six months before the start of the funding year and is open for about 75 days. Typically funding years begin in November.

The process of filing a 471 requires specific information about your school or district (NCES and/or FSCS codes, census counts, et al) as well as technical details about the services and hardware included in the contract(s) for which discounts or reimbursements should be considered. This is also when corrections to the bid specification should be made. For instance, if your bid initially requested a maximum of 25Gb but found that 100Gb was available for the same rate and met the FCC recommendations for the number of students at the school, that modification would be indicated.

Once the FCC Form 471 is submitted, the USAC begins its Program Integrity Assurance (PIA) review process. USAC may have questions, and if it doesn’t, you have 15 days to respond. This review process is like a Quality Audit and Quality Control (QA/QC) review; it is to ensure application accuracy and eligibility. During this time the USAC calculates discounts and ensures that the contract adhered to the competitive bidding process. The result of this view is a Funding Commitment Decision Letter (FCDL), posted to your E-Rate Productivity Center account. It contains details about discounts, service dates, and perhaps, more action items. The funding decision can be positive or negative. Much depends on the accuracy of the form and the applicant’s attention to the program guidelines.

Once the FCDL is received and funding is approved, applicants can begin receiving services. Once the services have started, a FCC 486 submission requests funding. (Some providers will include approved discounts on their invoices and collect the balance from USAC or negotiate an annual discount. The terms must be approved by USAC in advance.) This form notified USAC that services included in the process have begun and that the school follows the program requirements. In some cases, the funding authorization is renewed annually. Funds from the USF are released only after the school has been approved for funding and the school properly notified USAC that services are being rendered.

In the view of USAC, the process is like a cake walk. Forms are submitted, reviewed, and processed according to a simplified 4/4 beat. If it doesn’t work out, the reason often is because the applicant did something wrong.

CHOOSING A CAPABLE PROVIDER IS KEY
The fastest way to ensure a streamlined and competitive bid is to include a last-mile carrier in early discussions. Even better, involve a full-service provider that owns the circuit and performs demarc installation. Finding a full-service provider can be difficult, but these are companies that provide start-to-finish services. Arvig, for example, offers access to both lit services and dark fiber and has the in-house resources to construct the network, offer locating services and perform maintenance of the network. Once a network is installed and operational, Arvig turns it over to the school to own and manage. But before you involve any provider, it’s important to know this: Talking to any vendor who would participate in the project prior to the FCC Form 470 submission would violate the bidding requirement that “no bidder should have advance knowledge of the project.”

THE E-RATE TIME CONTINUUM
The USAC doesn’t explicitly say when the funding year begins and ends. In general, it begins in the summer, often in July and ends in November. Most applications are submitted at the fall deadline. Funds are limited in that they are allocated to applications on a first come, first serve basis until the funding runs out. The bid process takes place over the winter, and final awards are offered in the spring.

The FCC Form 471 filing window starts about 6 months before the funding year and lasts for about 2 1/2 months. The other big milestone, the FCC 486 submission, must be made within 120 days of the start of the service, or the date of the Funding Commitment Decision Letter, whichever is later. Factor the time to provision and install the fiber circuits against a hard-deadline of the pre-enrollment curriculum routines, and E-Rate early-in/early-out has greater implication. The school must have a positive commitment from USAC before the service provider can commit to construction.

Scheduling delays occur frequently because of weather and peak-demand. The risk to schools is that even short delays can trigger a major deadline shift; once school begins installation is hampered (if not halted) by safety and traffic considerations.

Early Filing Brings Great Advantage
In our view, as a carrier who both provisions and maintains continuous fiber networks all over Minnesota, the only good solution to this program is to file early. Shifting the timeline puts the advantage back on the school’s side where it belongs.

Filing early:

  1. Puts you in line for early funding, first in, first out.
  2. Gives you time to learn of better options, correct the project scope and still make the funding window.
  3. Ensures more bid participants, which brings pressure for competitive pricing, something the School, the FCC and the USAC care deeply about.
  4. Allows you to deliver needed bandwidth in time for the school year.

Starting earlier in the year adds valuable opportunity by decreasing the total project timeline. To set the application and procurement up for a successful result, IT Directors give themselves room to get it right. More important, they put students on fiber faster.

Arvig’s Recommendations For Application Success

The right service provider can help the school or library expedite their E-Rate participation and keep fiber expansion projects within budget, and on schedule. Arvig, for example, is a unique player in the E-Rate arena because it’s a full-service provider with start-to-finish project capability.

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For starters, Arvig offers both lit services and dark fiber and has the in-house resources to construct a qualified, custom network, cover precision locating services and perform maintenance of the network if the school or libary chooses to own their own network rather than lease it. Once a network is installed and operational, Arvig can turn it over to the school to own and manage.

Arvig provides internet service to more than 350 schools and libraries in Minnesota, including more than 100 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. It is the only traditional telecommunications carrier in the Twin Cities area that offers precision locating and network maintenance services.

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WHERE DO DISTRICTS GO FROM HERE?
START AN ACCOUNT AND ACQUIRE A BEN.
The process of applying for funding is straightforward; the USAC site keeps things simple. It explains the school or library’s initial steps to acquire a Billed Entity Number (BEN). The BEN is a unique number assigned by USAC to each billed entity that pays for services (the school or library). After creating an account to manage the application process, schools (or their hired consultant) can begin the process of applying for E-Rate funding.

The first step is to file or post FCC Form 470. This action begins a competitive bid for needed services: the internet connection itself and even the internal hardware and services needed to make it available to end-users. The process can begin at any time and a consultant can do it for you. The form stipulates whether proposals should be for Category 1 or Category 2 products and services. If the total cost will be less than $3,600 for bandwidth speeds of at least 100 Mbps for upload and 10 Mbps for download, a Form 470 is not needed.

E-Rate funding can be the boost schools and libraries need to deliver the high-performing internet networks their facilities demand. With this valuable funding on the table, even the best available service options—including robust, secure and future-proof fiber internet—can be part of the discussion for districts and libraries of all sizes.

Give your students the learning opportunity they need.

| Starting earlier in the year adds valuable opportunity by decreasing the total project timeline.

To set the application and procurement up for a successful result, IT Directors give themselves room to get it right. More important, they put students on fiber faster.

GET THE RIGHT BANDWIDTH AND TECHNOLOGY FROM ARVIG.