Ten years ago, only about 18 percent of public libraries offered free public access to Wi-Fi. Now it’s nearly ubiquitous in communities of all sizes. Wireless access not only enables our library patrons to bring their own devices to access the internet and digital content (sometimes from our sidewalks and parking lots), but it also enables libraries to improve and expand our technology services through mobile laptop labs, self-checkout, and even new pilots experimenting with using TV white space to extend our reach further into our communities.
Our school and higher education libraries also are meeting students and educators “where they are” — increasingly on their smart phones and other mobile devices. Wi-Fi is increasingly critical for enabling easy access to our collections and services across all types of libraries. In fact, more Internet traffic is carried over Wi-Fi than any other path in the United States.
Wi-Fi runs on unlicensed spectrum, parts of the radio frequencies that anyone can use as long as the technical rules established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are followed. Recent analyses indicate that Wi-Fi in our homes, businesses, libraries and schools is becoming congested by a deluge of data from more devices, applications and services connecting to the Internet without wires. Cisco predicts that by 2017, Wi-Fi will handle a majority of all data consumers’ access from the Internet.
This is why the American Library Association (ALA) has joined a new coalition calling on policymakers to unleash unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi and other uses.
WifiForward is an ad hoc group of companies, organizations and public sector institutions working to alleviate the Wi-Fi spectrum crunch. In addition to ALA, members include the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, Google, Comcast, Microsoft, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the International Association of Venue Managers.
The coalition will marshal support to:
- Protect and strengthen existing unlicensed spectrum designations,
- Free up new spectrum for unlicensed use, and
- Establish investment-friendly, transparent and predictable unlicensed rules that encourage growth and deployment.
The FCC has several opportunities to make more spectrum available: the auction of TV spectrum, determining how to share and apportion parts of the 3.5 GHz spectrum, and an ongoing proceeding in the 5 GHz band. The WifiForward coalition will work to raise public awareness about the importance of unlicensed spectrum to support the next-generation of technologies and the emerging “Internet of Things.” This work also aligns with the focus of the ALA’s Policy Revolution! initiative to expand and deepen its policy engagement and outreach to key stakeholders.
Providing and leveraging Wi-Fi is an increasingly importance part of ensuring equitable access to information in the United States, and the ALA is pleased to be a part of this important effort.