The ongoing digital revolution continues to create new opportunities for education, entrepreneurship, job skills training and more. Those of us with home broadband, smartphones or both can easily take advantage of these opportunities. However, for millions of Americans currently living without personal access to high-capacity internet or who lack digital literacy skills, libraries serve as the on-ramp to the digital world. With a growing number of people turning to libraries to avail themselves of broadband-enabled technologies, library networks are being strained more than ever before. Yesterday, the Institute for Library and Museum Services (IMLS) held a public hearing to discuss the importance of high-speed connectivity in libraries and outline strategies for helping libraries expand bandwidth to accommodate growing network use.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s opening remarks set the tone for the day: “Andrew Carnegie built 2,500 libraries in a public-private partnership, defining information access for millions of people for more than a century,” he said. “We stand on the precipice of being able to have the same kind of seminal impact on the flow of information and ideas in the 21st century…That’s why reform of the E-rate program is so essential. The library has always been the on-ramp to the world of information and ideas, and now that on-ramp is at gigabit speeds.”
The hearing convened three expert panels, each of which discussed a different dimension of library connectivity. The first panel propounded strategies for helping libraries procure the resources they need to build network capacity. Chris Jowaisas of the Gates Foundation urged libraries to underscore the ways in which their activities advance the goals of top giving foundations. “[Libraries should]…package their services to meet foundation needs,” Jowaisas said. “With a robust and reliable broadband connection, libraries and communities can move into more areas of exploration and innovation. The foundation hopes the network of supporters of this vision grows because we have seen and learned first-hand from investments in public libraries that they are key organizations for growing opportunity.”
Following his remarks, Clarence Anthony of the National League of Cities stressed the need for the library community to ramp up its efforts to make government leaders aware of the extent to which urban communities rely on libraries for broadband access.
The second panel analyzed current library connectivity data and identified areas where the data falls short in assessing broadband capacity. Larra Clark of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy drew on 20 years of research to illustrate that the progress libraries have made in expanding bandwidth—while meaningful—has generally not proven sufficient to accommodate the growing needs of users. About 9 percent of public libraries reported speeds of 100 Mbps or greater in the 2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, and the forthcoming Digital Inclusion Survey shows this number has only climbed to 12 percent. More than 66 percent of public libraries report they would like to increase their broadband connectivity speeds. “Libraries aren’t standing still, but too many are falling behind,” Clark said.
Researcher John Horrigan also gave the audience a preview of forthcoming research looking at Americans’ levels of digital readiness, which finds significant variations in digital skills even among people who are highly connected to digital tools. Of the 80 percent of Americans with home broadband or a smartphone, nearly one-fifth (or 34 million adults) has a low level of digital skills. “(Libraries) are the vanguard in the forces we bring to bear to bolster digital readiness,” Horrigan noted. “Libraries will have more demands placed upon them, which makes the case for ensuring they have the resources to meet these demands compelling.”
The final panel built on the capacity-building strategies offered by Jowaisas and Anthony by providing real-world examples of successful efforts to expand library bandwidth. Gary Wasdin of the Omaha Public Library System discussed ways in which his libraries are leveraging federal dollars to engage private funders in efforts to build broadband capacity, and Eric Frederick of Connect Michigan described how public-private synergies are improving library connectivity in his state. The final panelist was Linda Lord, Maine state librarian and chair of ALA’s E-rate Task Force. Lord discussed ALA’s efforts to inform the FCC’s ongoing E-rate modernization proceeding. “ALA envisions that all libraries will be at a gig (1Gbps) by 2018”, Lord said. The E-rate program provides schools and libraries with telecommunications services at discounted rates. Linda went on to clearly articulate ALA’s commitment to updating the program to help libraries address 21st century challenges.