Libraries highlighted in recent broadband discussions, activity

As one of the founding members of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington Office has actively participated in communicating the role of anchor institutions in national broadband build-out to members of Congress, the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Our messaging is finding its way into the formal discussions, as many leaders in Congress are now carrying the torch.

Senators send letter to NTIA

On Monday, October 26, Senator Kerry (D-MA), along with five of his colleagues including Sens. Warner (D-VA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Dorgan (D-ND), Udall (D-CO) and Landrieu (D-LA) sent a letter to Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling at the Department of Commerce.

In their letter, the senators express their concerns about the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) that was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.  They explain, “…the ARRA specifically states that BTOP is to provide greater broadband coverage not just to residences and businesses, but also to community anchor institutions such as schools, health care providers, and libraries.  These critical institutions are included as a priority for funding because they provide essential educational and medical services to millions of Americans every day, and building these anchor broadband connections would help lay the infrastructure to connect surrounding communities.”

The senators continue by expressing their disappointment that, “…it has come to our attention that many of the community anchor institutions believe that the current BTOP application process does not consider their broadband needs and does not reflect the priority assigned to these institutions in the ARRA.  There is concern that the application rules discourage community anchor institutions from applying for funding due to a definition of broadband that falls far short of the kind of high-capacity broadband often needed by these institutions.  Additionally, we have heard that some of those that did apply found the application process to be complicated, discouraging, and largely unfocused on the needs of anchor institutions.”

The senators conclude their letter by urging Mr. Strickling to “…consider the priority and accessibility of funding for high-capacity community anchor institutions in future funding rounds.”  We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.  The ALA applauds Sen. Kerry and his colleagues for raising libraries’ concerns and articulating the challenges we’re facing along with other anchor institutions.

Libraries emphasized in Senate oversight hearing

On Tuesday, October 27, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the “Oversight of the Broadband Stimulus Programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).” (The archived webcast of the hearing is available here.)

This hearing was of particular interest to ALA as Assistant Secretary Strickling was a key witness.  Mr. Strickling is responsible for NTIA’s distribution of $4.5 billion of the $7.2 billion designated for broadband programs. The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is responsible for distributing the other $2.5 billion. With the first-round Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) behind us and with more than 2,200 applications submitted (many of which included libraries in their applications), the complex review process for those applications is still ongoing. We are particularly interested in learning all we can about how applications are fairing and how the application guidelines are being applied or interpreted.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Strickling stated, “…we want to make broadband more widely available, especially to community anchor institutions such as hospitals, schools, and libraries.”  It is worth noting that in his prepared remarks Mr. Strickling referenced “anchor institutions” and “libraries” three times each — for a total of six such references.

During the Q&A portion of the hearing in response to a question from Sen. Kerry, Mr. Strickling indicated that the first- and second-round NTIA funding will be targeted at anchor institutions.  Of course, that caught our attention!  While it is unclear exactly what that means, we are encouraged that the value of community anchor institutions is being recognized as part of the national broadband infrastructure.

Keeping the momentum up

Our work as part of the SHLB Coalition is a great example of how the ALA partners and works with others “inside the Beltway” and beyond to advocate for libraries.  We look forward to weighing in on NTIA’s request for information on the first-round NOFA as soon as it is posted with the hopes of effecting changes to the second round.

Also, if you haven’t read it yet, my colleagues John Windhausen (ALA consultant) and Marijke Visser (ALA policy analyst for the Office for Information Technology Policy) make a great case for why fiber optic connectivity (where appropriate)  is the best forward-looking solution for libraries as community anchors in their policy brief, “Fiber to the Library: How Public Libraries Can Benefit from Using Fiber Optics for their Broadband Internet Connection.”

Corey Williams
Associate Director, Office of Government Relations

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