Greg and I are wrapping up a year long project that has resulted in some sure-to-be-rock-solid data network solutions, and we all only had to fork out about 30% of the total cost.

What is this magic you ask? Why it is E-Rate funding, and it is far from magic.

Not Magic

You likely are already familiar with E-Rate funding; in the past you probably worked with Andrew and later Ben Mauk of E-Rate Solutions to ensure you were getting reimbursed for a portion of your communications cost, i.e. phone and data. The funding for your Internet cost is called Category-1 funding, and even if you aren’t going to upgrade your data network you should be getting partially reimbursed for your Internet costs.

I would be daft if I didn’t mention that you should annually look into your options for Internet, maybe you can finally get Century Link to raise you over that 10Mbps threshold, or maybe Time Warner/Cox/AT&T are now available. It is worth  keeping you ear to the ground to see if you have new options in your city, and if there is you will definitely want to file a form 470 for Category-1.

The process for filing for Category-2 funding is just like Category-1. You put out an RFP for the equipment upgrades you require. Bids come in as emails and annoying phone calls from vendors you probably won’t go with and you don’t really care to talk to. After your RFP has been available for a certain period (months) you will fill out a matrix where you weigh each bid and make a selection. Eventually, next summer, you will get the go ahead to order your equipment, and finally a year from now we will have your upgrades installed. E-Rate solutions, Greg, and I will be along for the ride; this is a long process but someday down the road you will have a data network that is about the best it can be.

Category-2 funding will also partially cover the cost to have your building re-wired. If your library desperately needs a whole new network you should be planning to take this project on in 2017 before the funding disappears, just like my 30’s seem to have done.


So what is Meraki?

Cisco Meraki is the leader in cloud controlled WiFi, routing, and security. Secure and scalable, Cisco Meraki enterprise networks simply work.

In the past we relied on consumer grade data network equipment, and we all know you get what you pay for. This off-the-shelf equipment can be buggy, it is prone to needing power-cycling, basically it gets overwhelmed easily. We need something robust and that is where Meraki comes in. It is expensive (before E-Rate) but for that cost you get 24 hour support. If after you call support (or I call) and they determine your equipment is busted they will overnight you a replacement, for life. If NEKLS is your tech support then we will all benefit from being able to look at your data network from anywhere from a “single pane” meaning from a website and a big drop-down list. This type of cloud hosted connectivity will help Greg and I troubleshoot future issues much easier than how things used to be. Oh not like that again, please!

The other benefit we are touting about Cisco Meraki equipment is that we can start collecting some really precise statistics about how our data network is being used. We will know how many people really use your WiFi each day; we will have the ability to filter out those who simply passed by, their phone connecting but not really using the network. With the cost effective Unifi Solution we installed at several libraries over the last few years we get stats, but they are not refined or specific. You will often hear Unifi being referred to as “enterprise light”. There is nothing wrong with Unifi but you should be aware that we can do better.

E-Rate and Meraki Presentations

Greg Gantz had experience with E-Rate from his time with KanREN, and we have taken complete advantage of his experience in the last year at NEKLS. Both he and I and our new Director friend from Atchison will be brushing up on E-Rate this November in Saint Louis; what will be, I am sure, a thrilling conference. We hope that our experience with the Meraki Equipment installs this year and our committed focus to E-Rate funding will make us a good resource for your upcoming Category-1 or 2 projects. Below are some other great resources from Greg:

  • NEKLS LAN Initiative, 2016 Fall Director’s Institute, presented by Greg Gantz (slidedeck + notes)
  • E-Rate Explained, 2015 Fall Director’s Institute, presented by Greg Gantz (slidedeck + notes)

Spiel for Library Boards

I have shared the following notes (in some form) with several library directors for when they prepared to speak to their board about these upgrades. Feel free to share this with your Trustees.

E-Rate funding is allowing libraries to upgrade their internal data networks, with enterprise grade solutions, at a greatly reduced cost (roughly 70% off). However, this type of E-Rate funding won’t always be available, we believe next year (or the following) might be the end of this type of funding called Category-2. This will be the third year that there is money for this type of infrastructure. At your library, we have an affordable solution but it has always been “non-enterprise”. The statistics and granular controls that Meraki will provide is unmatched by your current solution.

As you know, since more and more patrons connect to our resources via wireless, it is important to know how much usage we are getting to get an accurate snapshot of how the library is being used. The State library now requires that we collect this information, but with the current equipment, we have no way of judging how our WiFi network is being used.

The Cisco Meraki solution has become very popular for organizations of all sizes, and many libraries across the country have decided to go with this same solution. This total data network solution will allow us to see wireless and wired network behavior from a single web-based dashboard, but not only will we have access to statistics we will have better tools for troubleshooting outages. This Meraki equipment is all under an incredible warranty, if it goes down Cisco will overnight a replacement. They also offer 24 hour support and can look at your network through the same dashboard NEKLS will have access to.

In 2016, Greg and I have gone through the full E-Rate Category 2 funding process and are now finishing up Meraki equipment installations at Lansing, Osawatomie, Holton, Rossville, Winchester and the NEKLS Office. In 2017, we will continue to encourage other libraries to take advantage of these funds and consider a Meraki solution.

Final points, the required licensing will only be for the next three years (unless you choose to go with a “5 year Enterprise license”), if E-Rate is still covering Category-2 in the future, then you can use E-Rate funds again to cover the majority of the license renewal cost. Also, your library should plan on paying for all of the network equipment up front and then later be reimbursed by E-Rate funds.

There are quite a few hoops we must jump through to qualify for this money, the first of which being to file a Form 470 with E-Rate solutions early next year.