Erate Steps – Part I: Needs Assessment & Competitive Bidding
With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the demands of digital learning, changes had to be put in place so we could communicate while in lockdown. The increase in demand due to our changing technology needs continues to be a fundamental necessity. Erate provides funding for internal infrastructure equipment like switches and access points that schools and libraries need to provide wireless Internet access. In our last blog, we reviewed the Erate basics. Now let’s dig in a little bit deeper as we start discussing the process – step by step.
A needs assessment should be conducted to determine what Erate-eligible equipment the school will need. Looking at how technology can be used to support student learning, it should also consider how technology can improve information safety, tools for teachers, and staff productivity. If the school has a strategic or technology plan, this can be utilized by school leaders to help determine the school’s technology needs for the next school year. It is recognized that forecasting technology needs 7-8 months in advance is difficult.
Erate provides reimbursement funds for two different categories:
Category 1 is for Internet services. This is a great way to boost up bandwidth to help improve online learning and test-taking. Through the Erate program, the school will always have to pay a portion of the expenses(Cost share) for Internet, equipment, and maintenance. The school cost share depends on the number of students that qualify for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or automatically qualify through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
Category 2 is for Internal connections (equipment) and ongoing maintenance. Category 2 has a set budget currently at $167 per student over a five-year period. For example, if the school has 200 students:
200 x $167= $33,400
The school receives $ 33,400 to spend on equipment and ongoing maintenance over five years.
Conducting a needs assessment before moving to the next step in the Erate process is essential to determine the school’s specific projected needs for additional bandwidth in the next school year. Internet pricing tends to be slightly lower each year, so understanding the needs provides an advantage when seeking quotes for services. The needs assessment for equipment should include the make, model, and quantity needed by the school. Being thorough in this step will help the school be better prepared to move on to the next Erate step – Competitive Bidding.
Knowing your infrastructure needs, it is time to submit your Form 470. This form tells potential vendors what you are requesting so that vendors can submit a bid to be considered. For large-scale projects with multiple layers of complexities, it is suggested that schools release an RFP to describe your services. E-rate program rules do not require applicants to issue an RFP, but a Form 470 is required if you do release an RFP.
Try to be as specific as possible when adding details to the online Form 470 so that vendors can provide relevant bids. You want to be able to compare apples to apples instead of apples to oranges when the bids are received. Schools can put their preferred make and model of equipment, but you have to add the words “or equivalent” in the narrative section. This helps the bidding process be open and fair to any company with a similar product that wants to submit a quote.
Use a tool to log each bid received, like a spreadsheet. Be sure to include the vendor name, SPIN, cost, date the bid was received, and services/equipment offered. Next, use a scoring matrix to score each bid. Use a standardized system with specific criteria to score each bid such as:
- Service provider experience
- Local or in-state vendor
Logging and scoring bids is crucial to receiving and keeping your Erate funds. It is suggested that you create a process and follow it for every bid received and year you apply for Erate funds. During the application review process and future audits, it is common for Erate to ask for bidding documentation such as the bid log, scoring matrix, or even the actual bids.
Some important Erate rules to consider
- If you do not have a service or piece of equipment listed in your Form 470, the school cannot add it to the next step or be reimbursed for that particular product or service. Be precise with the Form 470!
- There is a 28-day minimum waiting period from the time a Form 470 is filed and a vendor can be chosen.
- Pricing has to be the highest weighted factor in selecting a vendor. That does not mean that the vendor chosen always has the lowest costs for equipment and services. It does mean that pricing has to have more points available than the other criteria.
The Needs Assessment is the critical first step to the Erate process because it examines and identifies what the school’s technology needs are. Once that process is done, the bidding can take place. The overall intent of the 470 and open bidding is to provide a fair process for vendors to have an opportunity to gain new business and for schools to obtain the equipment and Internet services at the lowest possible cost. Stay tuned for the next step in the Erate process.