As schools and libraries start applying for discounts on high-speed Internet access and telecommunications services, a new online portal system is open for business to help in these efforts.

The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) kicked off the fiscal 2016 filing period for the E-rate program on Wednesday, Feb. 3, with the new portal system's launch. Eligible schools and libraries can receive between 20 and 90 percent discounts on services through the program — and they have two extra weeks to put in their requests as USAC works out the bugs in its system. 

This is the first full funding cycle since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) modernized the E-rate program in 2014, which provided more money for school Wi-Fi projects, among other things. While most of the new provisions were in place by this time last year, discounts for school-owned fiber networks hadn't gone into effect yet, and the final order was published in December 2015 — only a few months before applications opened up.

The whole E-rate process takes 18 to 24 months to play out, including school project planning, the competitive bidding process, the funding application, delivery of service and payment paperwork. And big projects like upgrading the wireless network take some major long-term planning. That's why the 2015 cycle didn't experience the full effects of E-rate modernization.

"Last year, they didn't have as much time as they really needed to take full advantage of the reform, but this year, they had time, they came in with their eyes wide open and were prepared," said John Harrington, CEO of E-rate consultant firm Funds for Learning.

Along with a new portal and longer time frame, USAC also has more money to distribute this year thanks to some problems at the New York City Department of Education. The FCC's Enforcement Bureau went after the department for a consultant's fraud that involved E-rate dollars. The department ended up paying a $3 million fine and relinquished its claim on $1.5 billion in E-rate requests from previous years. 

Because of the New York City order and normal leftover dollars from previous years, schools and libraries have a $1.9 billion pool of E-rate discounts to apply for this year on top of the minimum annual funding cap — bringing the total to $5.8 billion. That's a big deal, especially because New York City is the largest school system in the country and typically receives the most E-rate funding, Harrington said. 

Now that schools have the option to put E-rate funds toward purchasing their own fiber networks to buildings, some of them are considering targeted fiber projects, Harrington said. School districts that already lease fiber from local phone or cable companies may be happy with the rate and service they're getting overall. But sometimes, one of their branches or school sites might be in an area where it's expensive to lease a network. In that situation, the district might take a targeted approach to build its own network spur from the main network to that specific site.

"Having the threat of that option on the table is also bringing vendors in the door and helping them lower their prices proactively," Harrington said. 

April 1 is the last day to submit Form 470, which describes the services that school districts request and includes a certification form. While additional call center support and educational resources will be available for the new portal, Harrington recommends waiting until March to file the form. That way, USAC will have fixed some of the earlier problems, and applicants will avoid the rush of last-minute submissions flooding the system in April.