Report from the Alaska OWL Broadband Sustainability Summit

Bob Bocher at the Summit

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) has brought billions of dollars in investment in broadband infrastructure, public computing centers (PCCs) and broadband adoption efforts. Libraries and their communities have been among the beneficiaries of these funds, particularly as it relates to PCCs. As these grants wind down, however, libraries are tackling the tough question of sustainability.

It was my pleasure to be part of this conversation at the Alaska OWL (Online With Libraries) Broadband Sustainability Summit September 20-21 in Anchorage. The Alaska State Library team, ably led by Sue Sherif and Shane Southwick, created a jam-packed agenda and hosted a full house of OWL-participating librarians, advocates like John Windhausen of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition and OITP Fellow Bob Bocher, and state leaders, telecom providers and researchers.

It’s difficult to fairly communicate the unique aspects of Alaska, its broadband context, and its libraries, but I promised I would try and bring even a sense of this landscape back with me to Washington, D.C. A few key stats include:

  • 60% of the state’s libraries serve communities with fewer than 1,000 residents;
  • The average square footage for Alaska libraries is the smallest in the United States — 3136 square feet;
  • Alaska is the largest state in the United States (twice the size of Texas), has the lowest population density (about 1.2 persons per square mile vs. the U.S. average of 88), and about one-third of the state falls within the Arctic Circle;
  • 75% of Alaskan communities have no road access (so are reachable only by boat or small plane); and often the only Internet service available in these communities and their libraries is expensive and slow satellite access; and
  • The median residential price of Internet in Alaska is nearly three times the average U.S. price.

All of this adds up to high capital and operation costs for rural Alaska broadband and for a challenging, if not sometimes impossible, business case. The connectivity is sometimes so poor that even loading and completing OWL’s online evaluation survey would take more than the 30-minute computer time limit in place in many of the libraries (which allows more people to use the limited number of computers). While this scenario will sound familiar to rural librarians from Idaho to Maine, the central issue of availability to broadband connections is greatly exacerbated in Alaska.

Larra Clark

Larra Clark at the Summit.

Through its BTOP grant, and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation, OWL will leverage $5.3 million in BTOP funds to invest in library connectivity, equipment and training. The grant will: improve bandwidth for 67 libraries who had no broadband to at least 1.5Mbps (symmetrical); create a videoconferencing network of 97 public libraries with support from the University of Alaska; install public access computer and videoconferencing equipment for all Alaska public libraries; provide training for all library staff, and training and deployment of IT aides for libraries open less than 20 hours per week (which is nearly half of all libraries). More than three-quarters of libraries without broadband have received their bandwidth improvements, which is required before they are able to add computers and videoconferencing equipment. Most other progress measures are near or surpassing 50 percent.

The impact of these improvements already is being felt, as several librarians attested in quotes highlighted around the room. “Our ability to offer the world to our patrons has expanded tenfold through the OWL project,” said Sharron Ables in the Copper Valley Community Library, which serves a community of about 500 residents. “The (videoconferencing) equipment has already benefited our community… by connecting us for training, several writer’s events, and readings with our senators,” said Dordie Carter at Hollis Public Library, which serves a village of about 115 people. And you can hear directly from Craig Public Library Director Amy Marshall in a new video from the Gates Foundation. More than 160 videoconferences were held in one three-month period, and uses range from a video meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Disabilities and Special Education (one of the BTOP partners), a “pitchapalooza” in which local Alaska writers were able to make their cases to literary agents, and a virtual visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum for a Dazzling Dinosaurs program.

After hearing from a range of speakers, including the chair of the Alaska Broadband Task Force with a preview of its forthcoming report on what will be needed to sustain and grow recent investment in broadband networks, the bulk of the two days focused on groups organized around sustaining bandwidth gains, equipment and training. Librarians identified existing and potential stakeholders, partners and funders; and what actions might be considered to achieve target outcomes. Not surprisingly, the stakeholders and (current and potential) partners outnumbered the identified funders, but the conversations uncovered some potential new opportunities with key industries like oil or fishing companies, cruise companies and other tourism players. The small-group discussions were wide-ranging and deeply engaged.

Most of all, I would like to thank the state library staff — including Aja Razumny, who managed to help me remember a smattering of Italian from my college days — and the librarians who shared their time and stories with me: Betsy Hofstetter, head librarian for the 65-person Village of Igiugig, whose library is a community hub for children and elders alike and who received an IMLS Enhancement Grant to digitize and add photos to Alaska’s Digital Archive; Naknek Library Director Sheila Ring, who shared how she had been approached to have one of her branches serve as the community post office — and how impossible this would be in a community that receives pallets of supplies and where the small library has been designated as the emergency center for the community; Eagle Public Library staffer Krystie DePue, who is co-leading a digital literacy initiative as part of OWL; and to all of those who shared their commitment of connecting their far-flung communities with digital opportunity while flagging that many are in danger of e-government transitions that will require e-banking in a cash-only (and even barter) community to receive federal benefits. The needs are great, and Alaskans are fortunate to have such strong advocates for their communities.

Larra Clark
Director, Program on Networks

About Larra Clark

As Deputy Director of the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), Larra’s responsibilities include overall management of OITP’s telecommunications portfolio and day-to-day management of America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) projects and those in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Previously, she served as the project manager in the ALA Office for Research & Statistics for three years.

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