A farmer in Georgia uses precision agricultural technologies to track and manage his water usage. A veteran in Florida uses specialized video conferencing equipment to consult with his physician remotely, saving him hours in transit to the nearest VA facility. A woman without internet access in Maine uses her public library’s computers to complete her online MBA. What is the common technology enabling each of these scenarios?
Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a day-long workshop highlighting the importance of building and deploying broadband technologies in rural America–and the Georgia farmer, Florida veteran and Maine graduate student were just a few of the examples an expert morning panel used to illustrate the ways in which high-speed internet connection is empowering our rural communities. One of the members of the panel was Linda Lord, Maine State Librarian and chair of the American Library Association’s E-rate Task Force. Linda discussed the important role broadband plays in allowing libraries in rural America to serve as one-stop community centers and drivers of economic prosperity.
Thanks to broadband, people in every part of this country are increasingly using their libraries to take classes, sign up for health insurance, manage multi-media content, receive job training and pursue a number of other self-improvement and creative activities. The use of library broadband for these purposes is growing at an especially high rate in rural communities, where poverty is high and home internet service is often poor. Linda Lord provided an eye-opening example of the new uses of broadband in rural libraries when she spoke of the innovative way the library in the town of Cherryfield, Maine is using its high-speed connection to provide local students with unique new learning opportunities. At the Cherryfield Library, children in and around a tiny Maine town of 1,200 people can “visit” a Smithsonian museum located in Washington, D.C. by taking advantage of broadband-enabled interactive video programming.
Rural libraries now face the challenge of affordably expanding bandwidth to accommodate increasing usage of their broadband services. We must help them to meet this challenge not just for the sake of promoting universal access, but also to establish rural libraries as centers of technological advancement.
There is an outstanding capacity for innovation in rural America. Look no further than the example of the Georgia farmer provided by yesterday morning’s panel for an illustration of this point. The technology this man deployed to monitor his water usage was created by an entrepreneur in the rural south searching for ways to help farmers make more efficient use of their inputs. Now, not only is his company expanding within the agricultural sector, it is also providing broadband services to schools and private homes.
Time and time again, men and women across rural America have demonstrated the capacity to imagine the advancements of tomorrow. Libraries must be able to provide these individuals with the tools they need to bring their advancements from conception to fruition. From Maine to Mississippi, libraries need greater high-capacity, scalable broadband bandwidth to unlock these tools. We hope that Wednesday’s workshop will lead to policies that make stronger connectivity a possibility for libraries everywhere.
In the meantime, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy is working with Linda Lord and the rest of the ALA E-rate task force to shape the FCC’s ongoing efforts to modernize the E-rate program, which provides schools and libraries with internet access and other telecommunications services at discounted rates. ALA is currently drafting comments to the FCC calling for reforms to the program that will ensure that libraries across the country have access to the scalable broadband they need to serve their communities in the digital age.