Public Computing Broadband Grant Criteria

By Charles Benton

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) requires the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (B-TOP). NTIA is to make at least $200 million available for expanding public computer capacity including community colleges and public libraries. NTIA is asking what criteria will help identify the best projects to award grants to. NTIA is also asking for public comment on what additional institutions other than community colleges and public libraries should be considered as eligible recipients under this program.

Even though broadband subscribership is growing in the US, there remain many pockets of people who cannot use high-speed Internet connections in their homes.

First some background on who is served by public computing. You are likely reading this article online and wondering who would even use a public computer center like a library in this day and age. But even though broadband subscribership is growing in the US, there remain many pockets of people who cannot use high-speed Internet connections in their homes. A July 2008 report, Home Broadband Adoption 2008, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Pew), reported that 85 percent of U.S. households with incomes in excess of $100,000 subscribed to broadband Internet access services; however, only 25 percent of U.S. households with incomes at or below $20,000 subscribed to broadband services which was a decreased penetration rate for such households from 28 percent in March 2007 service. Pew found that the major reasons for not using broadband are availability, price, and lack of interest. Public access points are critical for addressing these challenges.

Public computer capacity is often provided through a community technology center (CTC) which offers public access to computers and the Internet. But CTCs go beyond hardware and connections; they address the skills and motivation needed for sustained use, empowering clients to improve their lives. CTCs provide training that ranges from basic computing skills to digital media production as well as applied skills (e.g. online job searching). While some CTCs are freestanding operations, many others are located in public libraries, schools, social service agencies, neighborhood centers, and religious centers.

In 2004, Pew found that 23% of adult U.S. Internet users (roughly 30 million people) have gone online from a place other than home or work. Those who depend on "third places" make up only 3% of the entire U.S. Internet population, but they are disproportionately likely to live in households earning less than $30,000, to live in rural areas, and to be newcomers to the online world. They are fairly infrequent users of the Internet who often use libraries and friends' homes as their access points, but they have entered the online world at the level that is available to them.

Among all away-from-home, away-from-work users, the top "other" locations for Internet access are school (27%), friend/neighbor's house (26%), at a library (26%), and a relative's house (9%). Pew found that 28% of Internet users with annual household incomes of less than $30,000 have logged on from a location other than their home or place or work. 50% of all Internet users who use at "third place" have income below $50k. School (31%), libraries (30%), and friends'/neighbors' houses (26%) are the top "other" locations identified by this group. On a typical day, 71% of those from low-income homes accessing the Internet from a "third place" do so at a school, with a library and a friend's/neighbor's house each accounting for 12% of other location usage. In addition, nearly one-quarter of both Hispanics and Blacks accessed Internet from 3rd place.

It is no surprise that libraries are explicitly highlighted in the Recovery Act because they, like community colleges, are centered in the community and provide training and not just access. The Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that the technology available in today's public libraries can help reduce the broadband access gap for families, while providing a wide range of information resources and services. Overall, the percentage of public libraries that provide free broadband Internet to patrons increased from 49% in 2002 to 65% in 2007, the most recent year available. In 2007, the percentage of libraries providing broadband Internet access in urban, suburban and rural areas was 91, 70 and 52%, respectively. Investments in library technology are helping communities that need it most. In 2007, 88% of public libraries in high poverty areas provided access to broadband Internet and 73% of public libraries reported their facilities as being the only source of free Internet access in their community.

Supporting public computing capacity at libraries and community colleges should allow these local community institutions to expand their missions to include community broadband safety net -- both access point and trainer. They are well-placed to facilitate access to broadband envisioned in the recovery Act for low-income, unemployed, aged, and otherwise vulnerable populations in order to provide educational and employment opportunities.

In addition, a 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that local community leadership plays a significant role in broadband deployment. One of the ways that some communities have addressed the lack of market entry into rural areas has been through initiatives wherein community leaders have worked to enhance the likely market success of private providers' entry into rural broadband markets. For example, some community leaders have worked to aggregate demand—that is, to coordinate the Internet needs of various users so that a potential entrant would be able to support a business plan. We were told that this leadership—sometimes by key government officials, sometimes through partnerships—was seen as critical in helping to spur the market in some unserved areas

As to the organizations to target for these awards, in 2003 Kate Williams published research estimating that there were 85,000 to 144,000 community technology centers in the US. These include but are not limited to: public libraries; Internet cafés; telecenters (community technology centers); Senior centers; copy shops; day care centers; churches; community centers; laundromats; hospitals; apartment complexes; museums; and, government offices.

NTIA should also do outreach to and prioritize applicants that already are well-placed to reach the most-needy members of a community. Local schools, already offering Internet access to students, could been seen as possible centers for access for parents and other members of the community. In addition, many non-profits provide services to low-income and unemployed persons and could augment their services with public computing and broadband access.

By Charles Benton.