The Nobility of E-Rate

In the library community, one of today’s highest profile, exciting national policy topics is modernization of the E-rate program. I know... it is hard to believe that the words “exciting” and "E-rate" can be in the same sentence. Well, it is true, and, as we shall see, it is with good reason. Just as a reminder for those of us not wallowing in the depths of E-rate rules and practices, here is the basis for the E-rate program: The Schools and Libraries Universal Service support mechanism [E-rate] was established as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with the express purpose of providing affordable access to telecommunications services for all eligible schools and libraries, particularly those in rural and economically disadvantaged areas.(1) In other words, E-rate supports critical technology infrastructure for 21st century libraries and schools focusing not just on telecommunications but also Internet access and their necessary local networks. The federal government has a proud history in providing and enabling basic infrastructure for the nation that we often take for granted. Americans enjoy travel on land via the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and in the sky courtesy of the air traffic control system. From the U.S. Post Office to rural electrification, daily life is immeasurably improved through developments and public investments in this national infrastructure. We are appreciative that leaders in the Executive and Legislative branches had the foresight to make these investments in the nation's future. Now we have the opportunity to reinvigorate the E-rate program for the broadband era, propelling libraries to even higher levels of service to America’s communities. Libraries complete education, and jump-start employment and entrepreneurship, for residents throughout the country. In addition, the sufficiently-connected library greatly fosters individual empowerment and community engagement. With this E-rate reform effort, the federal government, in this case the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is presenting us with the opportunity to make the rapid strides in the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure essential for libraries to fulfill the promise of The E’s of Libraries™. But what should be done? Many ideas -- from small changes around the edges of the program to far more fundamental reforms -- have been offered to the FCC and thousands of comments have been submitted in this proceeding. Some stakeholders believe the program does not need fundamental changes and the emphasis needs to be on increased funding. Other stakeholders say that "bold" and "innovative" changes are needed to achieve gigabit broadband connectivity to our libraries and schools. At the American Library Association (ALA), our thinking proceeds differently in some important respects. We agree with those that say the program has had many successes and that library E-rate funding is rather inadequate. But ALA also sees many ways to improve the program. ALA is focused on more effective and cost-efficient solutions, whether they are bold, innovative, and exciting, or not. Moreover, solutions must be reasonably implemented by the FCC, the Universal Service Administrative Company, service providers, and, most importantly, by the libraries themselves. Effective solutions should also provide as much local control as possible and, of course, must be affordable and justifiable to local governance bodies (i.e., just like everyone else, libraries have bosses). The focus of our recommendations is on scalable technology -- to enable gigabit connectivity immediately or eventually -- and low hanging fruit -- to seize the most cost-effective opportunities first, leveraging already-existing infrastructure wherever possible. We propose three initiatives:

  • School-library wide area network partnerships. Modify E-rate program rules, eliminate barriers, and provide incentives for schools and libraries to deploy high-capacity broadband in cooperation, rather than in isolation. Where this can occur, significantly improved economies will likely be realized.
  • Scalable technologies deployment program. Some libraries with poor broadband connectivity are in close proximity to broadband providers that can ensure scalable broadband at affordable initial construction charges and recurring costs after the deployment is complete. We urge the FCC to provide incentives and rule and process changes to encourage these efforts.
  • Network diagnostics and technical support program. Provide assistance to libraries in planning, purchasing, and implementing network infrastructure and Internet access through state library agencies or in partnership with such agencies. In addition to the direct support provided to libraries, this program is expected to yield improved aggregate processes such as improved network performance practices and bulk buying, developed through a grassroots (local/regional/state) approach.

These three initiatives represent cost-effective ways to advance high-speed broadband capacity in libraries and to develop knowledge to operate more efficient networks. In particular, we focus on the libraries that are farthest behind -- many of which have 10 Mbps or less and are often located in rural or poor communities. We have many other recommendations as described in our formal comments and other ideas that we are in the process of articulating, but we highlight these three initiatives as the place to begin for now. America needs roads for vehicles. We need electricity for our homes. And high-speed broadband for libraries and schools is now essential and overdue. Actually, I've reconsidered whether this is really exciting and, upon further reflection, I think it is not. Instead, it is simply basic, essential infrastructure for 21st-century communities, and challenging and noble work for the FCC.

Notes: 1. From; emphasis mine.

Alan S. Inouye, Ph.D. is Director of the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) in Washington, DC.

By Alan Inouye.