FCC: The time is now to speed library broadband connections

Tom Wheeler. Photo by Adweek.

Tom Wheeler. Photo by Adweek.

In the long series of events that is the path to E-rate modernization, yesterday marked a rhetorical high point for libraries so far. Invoking Thomas Jefferson as he helped open the 2014 Digital Learning Day at the Library of Congress, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized the crucial role of libraries as the “community on-ramp to the world of information.” He also turned the familiar refrain of E-rate as a program for schools and libraries to a program for libraries and schools.

Now, in the larger scheme of E-rate reform, this may seem an insignificant turn of phrase. However, let it be a metaphor for the kind of vision the Chairman has outlined for an E-rate program that delivers on President Obama’s goal of connecting students and their communities to high-capacity broadband within five years — or sooner. By actively engaging and asking E-rate stakeholders, to “turn things around” and think differently, we have been challenged to identify the strengths of the program, weed out what is less efficient or effective, and focus on bringing scalable, high-capacity broadband to libraries and schools at affordable rates.

Chairman Wheeler reminded us that we “have a problem that must be fixed” when there is digital inequity for our students and communities with a majority of our schools and libraries connected at internet speeds on par with the average U.S. home. We agree with the Chairman that we can do better. What will it take for libraries?

Clearly, we must focus on high-speed broadband, knowing that insufficient capacity is a very real barrier for modern libraries to meet growing community needs. This must be accomplished, however, through a phased transition rather than flash cuts. And we must bring capital investment to support high-capacity connections to libraries and schools where it currently is unavailable or unaffordable.

We support the Commission’s efforts to speed review of consortia applications. Where libraries are able to participate in consortia, the American Library Association (ALA) believes there can be economies of scale in purchasing services. Consortium applicants also may benefit from technical expertise otherwise unavailable at the local level — especially for smaller libraries. As FCC focuses on these more complex applications, however, we hope individual library and school applications will not be delayed. ALA also has long advocated for simplifying the application process so that more libraries are encouraged to apply, so we are encouraged by the current focus on this aspect of reform.

We agree that we need to immediately maximize existing funds but are glad the Commission will also seriously consider the need to increase permanent funding for a program that has been largely capped at the original level set18 years ago. The demand is evident, and if a data-driven recommendation can be achieved, we support such purposeful stewardship of public funds.

What is the library of the future? We cannot predict perfectly, but we can see some trends. Libraries are moving to cloud-based services so users can access digital resources anywhere, anytime. Libraries digitize local histories — photographs, oral histories (sometimes in vanishing languages), and unique ephemera — and upload these collections to platforms accessible anywhere on the globe with an internet connection. How do we accommodate symmetrical upload and download speeds for multiples of users creating and sharing audio and video files in our digital learning labs? Today libraries provide video conferencing to connect remote users to resources otherwise out of reach. It may not be long before a video is part of a typical job interview or a college admission requirement. We are investigating library applications for Google Glass, so how do we account for that kind of device? Our libraries must be equipped so that no one is denied opportunity because of inadequate broadband.

ALA’s goals align with those of the Commission and those of the President. We appreciate the comments from the Chairman and White House staff to call out the critical roles of public and school librarians. Even more so, we commend the commitment of FCC Commissioners and staff to engage libraries and schools at this critical time. We look forward to the upcoming Public Notice and the opportunity to help shape the transition away from legacy services in ways that do not unintentionally disadvantage the libraries furthest behind.

About Marijke Visser

As associate director of OITP, Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. In addition to E-rate, Marijke supports the Program on Networks focusing on broadband adoption issues for diverse populations. Marijke also serves as Program Director for OITP’s emerging portfolio on children, youth, and technology.

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