After years of inadequate Internet connections, public libraries and schools may soon get the upgrade needed to become true digital learning centers of the 21st century. Encouraged by President Barack Obama’s goal to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed internet within five years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now considering proposals to revamp E-rate, a key funding source for libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access.
Since President Obama’s ConnectED announcement in June, hundreds of libraries, schools, providers, public interest groups and others submitted their own proposals to the FCC on the best ways to modernize the program. As the government shut down last week, several of these groups met at a Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition seminar in Washington, D.C., to discuss proposed reforms to the E-rate program.
Event speakers had diverse perspectives on this issue—librarians, educators, and broadband providers traveled from across the nation to talk about better ways to operate the telecommunications discount program. While each group offered different solutions, they all agreed that change is needed—badly.
Larra Clark, director of the Program on Networks for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy spoke about the challenges libraries face providing internet access that keeps up with the high demand of their patrons. Only half of libraries offer Internet speeds above the FCC’s home broadband recommendation of 4 Mbps.
“Studies have shown that libraries have the same [internet] connection as the average American home but are multiuser environments,” she said.
Denise Atkinson-Shorey, president of consulting firm e-Luminousity (speaking on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and others agreed schools also have significant broadband challenges. “Schools are in a difference place with broadband, and they are going to have to change,” Atkinson-Shorey said.
Said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, in a video address: “I don’t know of a single school in America that isn’t clamoring for internal broadband.”
Throughout the day, speakers discussed better ways to reform the program, proposing revamps to the current priority system, changes to the application process and adding data monitoring requirements.
Clark offered that since not all libraries and schools have the same needs, what works for one institution may not work for another. She called for flexibility and choice, including equalizing how the E-rate program treats dark and lit fiber, as well as leasing and ownership.
“There are schools where it is not economically possible for the [dark fiber] upgrade,” said Jim Kohlenberger of JKStrategies and Education Superhighway.
ALA has called for new E-rate funding to jumpstart and sustain high-capacity and high-speed internet connections that support digital learning and economic development through libraries and schools.
“I believe the most important question we can ask ourselves right now is: ‘How can we use this opportunity to enable libraries, schools, and our communities to vault forward our capacity to support digital learning and digital connection?’” Clark asked.
The current funding cap on the program consistently falls far short of meeting basic demand for internet-enabled education and learning services, and technology trends clearly show needs and future capabilities only are growing.
ALA supports a two-pronged approach:
- New temporary funding is needed to support the build-out of high-capacity broadband networks and especially provide increased support for libraries with the lowest levels of broadband connectivity.
- A permanent increase in funding is not only justified but is a sound investment for the country.
There was widespread agreement on several points, including the need to streamline and improve the review process of consortium applications and to allow applicants with multiyear contracts to have a simplified review process with an evergreen Form 471.
The second period for public comment is scheduled to end October 16. (The government shutdown, however, has shuttered the FCC electronic comment filing system and indefinitely derailed policy conversations with FCC staff and commissioners. If the government is not re-opened before October 16, the new deadline will be one day after federal offices are re-opened.) As the E-rate rulemaking reforms continue, the ALA will continue to advocate for better ways to support patrons, students and non-traditional learners (homeschool students and GED test takers, for example) of all ages.