High-capacity Broadband and E-rate: Libraries as Community Leverage
Broadband, especially of the high-capacity variety, once mostly the province of network engineers and large organizations, is now everyone’s concern. Whether at home, school, on the job, or walking down the street, speedy response in using the Internet is the new normal. For libraries, this need and expectation is even more pronounced. A single broadband connection to one library provides access for thousands of people over the course of a year. And with these Internet connections come the full range of resources and expertise that libraries and librarians offer. Bolstering broadband investment in libraries is truly a fabulous way to leverage scarce community and national resources and support local economies. Contemporary libraries provide a diverse set of services in communities nationwide. Libraries help people find and apply for jobs and government services online. Libraries provide assistance with learning, whether helping students with their homework or supporting multimedia content creation and dissemination for self-learners—whether children, senior citizens, or anyone in-between. Libraries enable access to an eclectic information menu, from health, medicine and household finance to personal avocations of every sort. An increasing number of activities rely on high-capacity broadband, such as those that use video conferencing and streaming media. This reliance on broadband will only increase. Thus, libraries need broadband to provide the services fundamental to their mission. And most fundamental is ensuring digital inclusion for all. Close to 30% of U.S. households still do not have broadband services. Libraries are the institutions across the country—in big cities and small towns—best equipped to provide public Internet access along with digital content and digital literacy support. Indeed, more than 62 percent of libraries report that they are the only provider of no-fee access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Another way to think about it is in terms of leverage. A single broadband connection to one library provides access for thousands of people over the course of a year. And with these Internet connections come the full range of resources and expertise that libraries and librarians offer. Bolstering broadband investment in libraries is truly a fabulous way to leverage scarce community and national resources and support local economies. For example, at the Rangeley Public Library, Director Janet Wilson states: “The Rangeley Library’s ability to provide Internet access to our patrons helps the economy of the Rangeley Lakes region, and the economy of the state of Maine. Our area is heavily dependent on tourism, and we have many people who come for extended periods of time, continuing to work via the Internet at the library. There are people who are literally here every day of their stay, sometimes all summer long. Our library acts as their office while on vacation. If this service were not available, many tourists would not be able to stay as long because they would not be able to leave their places of business for such extensive periods.” By contrast, many libraries still lack robust broadband access. About one-half of libraries have less than 10 Mbps (yes—that’s for the entire building supporting an average of 16 computers). About 53% of urban libraries—many of which are supporting hundreds of computers and users each hour—have under 20 Mbps. Though the situation has improved in recent years, thanks to prudent public and private investments, libraries clearly need much more. Just adding another T1 line is not going to cut it. Thus, the open proceeding on the E-rate program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the President’s proposal for a ConnectED initiative are truly exciting developments for the library community. What better way to leverage libraries than building on a successful E-rate program, and make a quantum jump from basic connectivity to high-speed broadband for libraries across the land? As a Washington insider, it is gratifying to see the strong bipartisan outpouring of support for the mission of the E-rate program in this time of political polarization. For example, all of the FCC Commissioners articulated strong public support for the program, as have many Members of Congress. Not surprisingly, we differ on how to proceed, but there is agreement that all libraries and schools must have high-capacity broadband as soon as practicable. Under the rubric of the ConnectED initiative that calls for connecting all students to high-capacity broadband within five years, the American Library Association (ALA) proposes two programs to accelerate the deployment of high-capacity broadband. One program, ConnectUS focuses on fiber build-out for the last mile to libraries and schools. In some areas, high-capacity broadband service is simply not available and such infrastructure needs to be constructed. But there are other benefits too. The development of these networks provides the opportunity for lower operating costs, especially as broadband needs increase over time, thereby improving cost-efficiency in the long run. Also, other community anchor institutions beside libraries and schools may benefit from this new infrastructure (though these institutions are not eligible for the E-rate program and thus would incur the full incremental costs for connecting). Another program, Fast Internet Networks for All Libraries (FINAL), focuses on libraries with low broadband capabilities (e.g., under 10 Mbps) located in areas in which higher-capacity broadband is available. FINAL focuses on the other inhibitors to the adoption of high-capacity broadband—namely cost and limited local resources. The program proposes additional financial support, ways to streamline the e-rate application process and technical support to smaller and rural libraries via an entity with the requisite experience and expertise. While these programs will serve to accelerate deployment of high-capacity broadband to libraries and schools, they don’t address the fundamental funding shortfall in the E-rate program. The actual need is at least twice the current funding level. This shortfall is an urgent issue that needs to be remedied. The current proceeding and ALA comments on it address many ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the E-rate program. We recommend several ways to increase the emphasis on funding high-capacity broadband. We recommend additional support for rural areas because they face heightened challenges in deploying broadband. Simplifying the procurement and disbursement processes, and easing the burden on multi-year and consortium applicants are among the other ALA recommendations. Despite all of the good work by the stakeholders of the E-rate program, much more remains to fulfill the program’s mission. ALA is now fully focused on its reply comments. I hope that many of you will consider providing input to the FCC. Also, please speak out! Consider writing an op-ed, letter to the editor, or blog post; comment on others’ work. The message cannot be said too often: America’s future is developed in our schools and libraries. It is a major national interest to provide the best possible telecommunications access in libraries and schools. The best current means to support this goal is the E-rate program, and thus bolstering the program’s capacity, effectiveness, and efficiency must be a high policy priority.
Alan S. Inouye, Ph.D. is Director of the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) in Washington, DC.