What is E-rate? And what does E-rate have to do with digital citizenship? Learn more about this federal program for schools and libraries.

two elementary school students in a computer lab

E-rate is complicated. But complying with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) -- a requirement of E-rate -- doesn't have to be. Common Sense Education created this essential guide to help your district or school address the key topics E-rate recipients need to teach students, including internet safety, appropriate online behavior, and cyberbullying. It also provides an overview of E-rate, with answers to commonly asked questions about eligibility, services supported, and audits. Read on to learn more.

What is E-rate?

The Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, more commonly known as E-rate, is a federal program through which schools and libraries can apply for funds to purchase hardware, internet access, and telecommunications to connect their students to learning opportunities.

The E-rate program is funded through the federal Universal Service Fund and administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), under the umbrella of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Check out these helpful resources to learn more about E-rate:

Who is eligible to receive E-rate support?

The E-rate program was put into place to ensure that education institutions have access to the technological resources necessary to keep students and teachers connected. Eligible groups include:

  • All K–12 public schools (including public charter schools)
  • All nonprofit K-12 private and parochial schools with endowments less than $50 million
  • All public libraries
  • All public elementary and secondary school libraries whose funding is separate from the school

If you're unsure whether your institution qualifies for E-rate funding, check out USAC's School and Library Eligibility page for a more detailed description of eligibility requirements.

What services are eligible to receive discounts under E-rate?

Through E-rate, your school or library can receive support to purchase communication services and other technological products. According to USAC, the E-rate Eligible Services List falls under three broad categories. 

Category One: Data Transmission Services and/or Internet Access
This category covers the services necessary to support broadband connectivity in schools and libraries, including data links that connect multiple points, services used to connect eligible locations to the internet, and services that provide basic conduit access to the internet.

Category Two: Internal Connections (IC), Managed Internal Broadband Services (MIBS), and Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections (BMIC)
Category Two covers the internal connection needed for broadband connectivity used for educational purposes in schools and libraries. E-rate support is limited to the services required to bring broadband into, and provide it throughout, schools and libraries as well as some basic maintenance of these connections.

Miscellaneous services include fees and charges that are a necessary component of a Category One or Category Two service as well as funding required for the installation, activation, and initial configuration of eligible services.

E-rate discounts range from 20% to 90% of the costs for eligible services and are funded based on demand, up to an annual cap of $4.15 billion. The exact discount for a particular applicant school or library is determined by region (whether the school or library is located in an urban or a rural area) and the income level of the applicant school or library.

It's worth noting that funding requirements also differ by category. Category One services are determined in part by the percentage of students in the district who qualify for free lunches, while Category Two services are awarded based more broadly on student population and school or library size.

Check out these helpful resources for more information:

What does E-rate have to do with digital citizenship? What are the educational requirements for compliance?

The connection between E-rate and digital citizenship may not seem obvious at first. However, in order to be eligible for E-rate program discounts on Category One (internet access) and all Category Two services (internal connections, managed internal broadband services, and basic maintenance of internal connections), all applicants must first demonstrate compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). This act, first enacted by Congress in 2000, is intended to "address concerns about children's access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet."

In general, this means that before your school can receive E-rate funding, administrators must certify that the school or library has taken, among other actions, measures to protect the online safety of minors, limit the access and/or monitor the online activities of students, filter and block obscene materials, and provide a reasonable public notice of your internet safety policies.

For schools specifically, however, there are two additional requirements under CIPA before you can receive any E-rate funding. CIPA and its amendment, Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act of 2008, require that all districts receiving E-rate funds must "provide for educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness and response." In short, schools that receive E-rate funding need to teach students how to use technology safely and responsibly.

This is where Common Sense Education's K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum can help. Use our Digital Citizenship for CIPA and E-Rate Guide, which recommends all the digital citizenship lessons you need to fulfill CIPA requirements for E-rate from our research-based, classroom-tested free curriculum.

How do I get started with meeting CIPA requirements?

Beginning the application process to fulfill the CIPA digital citizenship education requirement and receive E-rate funding can seem daunting. Manage the process with the three-step framework outlined here, and use the supporting tips and resources to guide you through each step.

1. Plan

The government doesn't specify how to deliver the CIPA education requirement, so it's up to your district or school to decide what's best. We recommend teaching two digital citizenship lessons per grade level in order to cover all CIPA-mandated topics. However, every school has different needs and challenges. Coordinate with your district leaders to identify an education model that best fits your particular school. Check out Common Sense Education's Framework for Digital Citizenship Implementation to find resources and strategies to guide your planning. The USAC E-rate training resources are also a great way to get familiar with the E-rate application process as a whole.

2. Implement

Once you've set your education plan, browse our Digital Citizenship for CIPA and E-Rate guide to find all the resources you and your students will need. Here you will find a curated set of digital citizenship lessons to help you meet CIPA student education requirements, along with engaging videos, practical handouts, lesson quizzes, helpful parent tips, and colorful classroom posters. Browse our five Digital Citizenship Instructional Models for additional strategies on the who, what, when, and where of implementation.

3. Document

It's important to stay organized and document your process, especially to be prepared for an E-rate audit. Use our Administrator Implementation Checklist, as a document or Google Form, to document your planning and implementation. Once teachers complete the instruction, have them fill out our Teacher Verification Document, as a document or Google Form, and compile all relevant documentation in one place. For a comprehensive list of all documentation required for E-rate, see the USAC Documentation for Auditors Checklist.

Finally, remember that this is about more than just being able to check a box on a form saying that you're in compliance with E-rate and CIPA requirements. It's about preparing your students to thrive in a world rich with media and technology.

What if I get audited?

E-rate recipients are subject to audits in order to ensure that applicants have complied with FCC rules and program requirements. According to the USAC, the most common audit findings include: missing or inaccurate documentation, untimely payment to service providers, or an insufficient internet safety policy. Remember, though, FCC audits can be selected at random or based on a school or library’s size and geographic location. Just because you’ve been selected for an audit does not not necessarily mean that the USAC believes there's a problem. Still, there are best practices your institution can follow to be prepared for an audit.

Generally, the USAC will notify a district, school, or library that has been selected for an audit about two to three weeks prior to the start of the audit by sending an announcement letter. This letter will include details about the purpose and scope of the audit, important dates, and requests for documentation. The particular length of time of an audit depends on the amount of support an institution is receiving through E-rate. To prepare for an audit, be sure to:

  • Stay organized by keeping your documents and files in one place. Track everything you do, and document every step on the way. The USAC recommends maintaining records for at least 10 years after the last day of the funding year for a funding request to be able to comply with audits.
  • Double-check your reports for accuracy before submitting them to USAC.
  • Know your deadlines.

See the USAC audit information page for more general information about the E-rate audit process, and see the USAC Documentation for Auditors Checklist, which covers all the documentation you should maintain for audit purposes.

Has the E-rate process changed in response to COVID-19?

Yes and no. The FCC has made some changes to the E-rate application process and limitations applied to E-rate funding in order to give educators more flexibility. However, CIPA requirements and the general application process of E-rate have remained the same.

Here are some tips to aid your E-rate application process during the pandemic:

Keep an eye out for deadline extensions. The USAC has extended certain application deadlines to give applicants and providers more time to file their applications, submit appeals, deliver services, file invoices, and respond to information requests. It's a good idea to watch out for any changes in dates by monitoring the USAC main E-rate landing page and specialized COVID-19 information page. In the shifting landscape of returning to school during the pandemic, USAC deadlines may be more flexible now than during an ordinary application period.

Make sure you're updated on any changes to FCC guidelines for the distribution of E-rate services during distance learning. The FCC has waived certain E-rate Program gift rules through September 30, 2020, to accommodate the needs of distance learning. Schools and libraries are now allowed to solicit and accept services such as Wi-Fi hot spots, devices, and broadband connections to support students, teachers, and other community members affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, the FCC issued a notice that schools and libraries are still "permitted to allow the general public to use E-rate-supported Wi-Fi networks while on the school's campus or library property, even if the school or library is closed." The FCC leaves it up to the individual library or school's discretion to establish their own policies regarding the use of their Wi-Fi during closures. Be sure to watch for any further changes to the E-rate program as the pandemic develops. The FCC states that it will "continue to monitor the situation to determine whether any additional waiver of these rules and deadlines is needed."

Kelly Mendoza

Kelly Mendoza oversees education content and programs for Common Sense Education, including the Digital Citizenship Curriculum, Learning ratings and reviews, articles and newsletter. Her goal is to provide schools programs that support students to thrive as learners, leaders, and citizens in the digital age. She also has developed education resources and curricula for Lucas Learning, the Media Education Lab, and PBS' Frontline films Growing Up Online and Digital Nation. Kelly has a Ph.D. in media and communication from Temple University. Her daughter loves Harry Potter … and rock climbing.