How E-Rate funding can help schools and libraries secure their wireless networks

School districts across the country just wrapped up the application process for the next round of E-Rate funding, while libraries still have a few weeks until the deadline. As the adoption of mobile devices, tablets, virtual reality, and 3D printers adds pressure to their wireless capabilities, many are planning to expand their networks through the E-Rate program.

But as they do, they should keep in mind that schools and libraries can be breeding grounds for viruses and bugs – security bugs, that is. A growing wireless network poses additional challenges to IT staff, who must think about security as funding helps expand their network.

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In addition to security concerns, any public entity receiving E-Rate funding must adhere to the rules and policies of the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Many schools and libraries are investing in firewalls – with the help of E-Rate – to protect their IT environments and keep them compliant.

But adding security to the network while staying within the letter of E-Rate law can sometimes be tricky. Here’s how to secure your growing infrastructure while ensuring you remain eligible for E-Rate funding.

As the network grows, prioritize security

A few years ago, the FCC revamped E-Rate to prioritize Category 2 services, which includes routers, switches, wireless networks, and access points. The change signaled a shift from funding phone services and placed higher importance on building up a school or library’s internal network capabilities, specifically the wireless network.

As schools and libraries grow their wireless networks, they face similar security needs because both must adhere to CIPA rules that, among other safeguards, limit access to inappropriate content on the internet.

Firewalls help meet that goal, and are eligible for Category 2 E-Rate funding. They usually make up the first line of IT security, and can be managed on-premises, making them easy for the school’s IT staff to monitor and improve.

After protecting an IT environment with firewalls, schools and libraries can also consider content filtering or monitoring tools — but only if tracing activity to specific users is possible. Content monitoring creates network activity logs that help determine which user was acting inappropriately and prevent similar actions in the future.

But be careful how you implement these additional tools – many aren’t covered under E-Rate.

Beware of bundles

E-Rate has many rules, and because it’s quite competitive, schools and libraries must diligently follow the laundry list of regulations. One such rule applies to packaged or bundled services, some of which are ineligible for E-Rate funding.

Many vendors bundle the hardware with basic security and maintenance software, as well as additional content filtering tools, to provide a more complete solution. However, E-Rate funding will only cover the minimal security, and as a result, the addition of other services (in this case, content filtering) often makes the product ineligible for funding.

To ensure every purchase is eligible, itemize every need and vet each piece of technology you’re considering. These bundled services can seem like great deals, but can be problematic for cash-strapped schools and libraries if they’re deemed ineligible for E-Rate funding.

Benefiting students and the public — securely

E-Rate funding benefits schools and libraries by expanding internet capabilities for students and the general public. Schools and libraries have a responsibility to secure their infrastructure, especially as more public entities grow their wireless networks. In addition to the E-Rate allotments, schools and libraries should prioritize the expansion and growth of security around their IT environment every year.

Firewalls are E-Rate eligible and can be set up on-premises and expanded as the network grows. This first level of protection ensures schools and libraries meet CIPA standards and protect students from accessing inappropriate material online. Other software and data protections tools can – and should — be built on that security foundation, but these programs are typically not eligible for E-Rate reimbursement.

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