America’s public libraries serve more than 77 million computer users each year, yet many of these institutions do not offer high-speed internet access. How can libraries get up to speed? In a recently published editorial, ALA Office for Information Technology Policy Director Alan Inouye explores ways that strategic national investments in broadband internet infrastructure can better support library learners and students.
Libraries need broadband to provide the services fundamental to their mission. And most fundamental is ensuring digital inclusion for all. Close to 30% of U.S. households still do not have broadband services. Libraries are the institutions across the country—in big cities and small towns—best equipped to provide public Internet access along with digital content and digital literacy support. Indeed, more than 62 percent of libraries report that they are the only provider of no-fee access to computers and the Internet in their communities.
By contrast, many libraries still lack robust broadband access. About one-half of libraries have less than 10 Mbps (yes—that’s for the entire building supporting an average of 16 computers). About 53% of urban libraries—many of which are supporting hundreds of computers and users each hour—have under 20 Mbps. Though the situation has improved in recent years, thanks to prudent public and private investments, libraries clearly need much more. Just adding another T1 line is not going to cut it.
Thus, the open proceeding on the E-rate program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the President’s proposal for a ConnectED initiative are truly exciting developments for the library community. What better way to leverage libraries than building on a successful E-rate program, and make a quantum jump from basic connectivity to high-speed broadband for libraries across the land?
As a Washington insider, it is gratifying to see the strong bipartisan outpouring of support for the mission of the E-rate program in this time of political polarization. For example, all of the FCC Commissioners articulated strong public support for the program, as have many Members of Congress. Not surprisingly, we differ on how to proceed, but there is agreement that all libraries and schools must have high-capacity broadband as soon as practicable.
Under the rubric of the ConnectED initiative that calls for connecting all students to high-capacity broadband within five years, the American Library Association (ALA) proposes two programs to accelerate the deployment of high-capacity broadband. One program, ConnectUS focuses on fiber build-out for the last mile to libraries and schools. In some areas, high-capacity broadband service is simply not available and such infrastructure needs to be constructed.