If it’s a day that ends in -y it must be E-rate…

Last week was over-flowing on E-rate related events, discussions, meetings, phone calls, (and the inevitable bad E-rate jokes). Maybe because I dreaded going to the grocery store on a beautiful afternoon and so was stuck with empty cabinets and fridge, but on Sunday evening this ongoing E-rate proceeding made me remember the story of Stone Soup where great things seemingly come from nothing at all except a little give on the part of the collective whole. True to the folk tale tradition, the E-rate story has many variations in how it is told and how the teller envisions the outcome, but here is last week’s chapter–one among many–as I would retell it.

At the SHLB Coalition 2014 Annual Conference

If we’re to bring up the libraries furthest behind in reaching the gigabit goals for schools and libraries, we must solve both the “to the building” and “within the building” issues.”

Beginning backwards on Friday, we in ALA’s Washington Office added to our “to do” list by meeting informally with a number of library leaders at the tail end of the SHLB Conference to talk about the E-rate related sessions and to pick apart the many discussions that occurred throughout the two-plus days of the SHLB event. The SHLB conference had not one but three dedicated E-rate panels, so issues related to benchmarks, capital investment and how to best invest a $2 billion FCC “down payment” were debated thoroughly. E-rate also was front and center for an opening program by Louis Fox of CENIC looking at California library broadband connectivity and in remarks from Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). At the time of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Senator Markey was then a key leader in the House to advance the E-rate program as part of the Act and has now called for an E-rate 2.0.

From these discussions we gathered a few ideas on addressing the broadband capacity shortfall among the roughly 90 percent of libraries with less than 100 Mbps speeds–from an affordability and availability point of view. We also continued discussions on the variety of challenges in making sure Wi-Fi inside the library is robust enough for patrons using one, two, or even three personal devices. If we’re to bring up the libraries furthest behind in reaching the gigabit goals for schools and libraries, we must solve both the “to the building” and “within the building” issues.

Commissioner Rosenworcel’s call to lock arms

Wednesday may be hump day in an ordinary week but last Wednesday was a highlight in our very full week with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s remarks at the annual meeting of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). The Commissioner captured the essence of where libraries are today in providing internet access when she stated:

Modern libraries… are centers of knowledge dissemination–in all its forms. They are also vital to our communities… And as the digital age makes its way through our commercial and civic lives, I think libraries are going to grow more important–not less.

The Commissioner did not let us rest complacent, however, and called on the library community to “lock arms” with our school colleagues to ensure the longevity of this critical technology program. ALA stands with the Commissioner on this point and firmly believes that the opportunity provided by the E-rate Modernization proceeding can be well used to think boldly about the current structure of the program while making improvements that will benefit all applicants. ALA proposals seek to increase library and school participation, address challenges specific to rural and high-poverty areas, and continue down the Commission’s path of achieving cost-efficient spending throughout the program. We think of these as “two-for-one” ideas where the Commission can take an immediate step toward bringing more libraries and schools closer to the gigabit capacity goal while simultaneously identifying areas of the program that need improvement and applying these lessons to the program in the future.

FCC’s E-rate Modernization Workshop & the Tom Wheeler meeting

Tuesday brought a full day of discussions and front-line experiences during the FCC’s E-rate Modernization Workshop. Libraries were well-represented on the two panels that included education leaders and network experts, along with Corrine Hill, executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library; David Leonard, director of administration and chief technology officer of the Boston Public Library; Emily Almond, director of information technology for the Georgia Public Library Service; Stacey Aldrich, deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries; and Jeff Letourneau, executive director of NetworkMaine. Time is short and much left to share, so read in detail about the workshop in Monday’s District Dispatch post.

Monday last week ALA staff accompanied a “library contingent” of public library director and state librarians to meet with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his staff to discuss library broadband capacity as it relates to supporting the critical services libraries provide their communities. Through data and anecdotes describing The E’s of Libraries,â„¢ the contingent provided the Chairman a clear perspective on how libraries leverage technology and free public internet access (including Wi-Fi for patron devices). From completing Education, to jumpstarting Employment and Entrepreneurship, to fostering Empowerment and community Engagement, high-capacity library broadband is essential.

NLLD14

Monday was also ALA’s National Library Legislative Day when we were fortunate to welcome Senator Angus King (I- ME) who described his early interest in education and understanding of the critical impact the internet can play in equalizing opportunity for students regardless of geographical boundaries. As the Senator noted, Maine could either lead or be left behind. Then-Governor King chose the former path. Maine was and has been a leader in implementing technology effectively to support its students’ learning beginning with the first one-to-one program for middle school students across the state. Senator King aptly described the situation we now find ourselves as we consider the future of the E-rate program informed by thousands of public comments, media reports, research, statements, and events when he challenged us to think about how we deal with change.

Quoting President Lincoln, Senator King challenged:

We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

It is a weighty quote, and while the disruption of the Civil War is clearly of a different magnitude than the technology disruption we see today, the call for collective action to do better and to think anew are cornerstones to finding success in the FCC’s call to action. Indeed, FCC Chairman Wheeler invoked the same quote in an early speech building on his “regulatory philosophy.” Many have noted that we are in a fundamentally challenging and pivotal moment in telecommunications where the shift away from analog to digital (i.e., the internet and all it brings with it) is forcing all of us to rethink how we communicate, how we learn, how we work, and how we play (and how our government governs, and how our regulators regulate).

In terms of the E-rate subset of telecommunications policy, the past week reaffirmed that the present is stormy and that “the dogmas” of the past are inadequate. ALA staff and its members spent the week engaged with many of the stakeholder groups in this proceeding, from meetings with library leaders, to our education peers and providers at the SHLB conference, to Senate Commerce Committee staff (intimately involved in supporting the E-rate program during its modernization), to the FCC staff that will implement changes, to the FCC Chairman himself. It’s a “full-court” press to support libraries in delivering the promise of broadband-enabled resources and services.

So that’s my E-rate version of Stone Soup–lots of concerted effort and collaboration. The successful outcome for the E-rate proceeding depends on collective action–through the public comment process, through individual and coalition meetings, and through stakeholder education–and compromise. While not quite at the end yet, I believe we can all do better through a collective re-envisioning of what the broadband opportunity can mean for libraries and schools–and most importantly for the communities they serve.

About Marijke Visser

As associate director and senior policy advocate, Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. In addition, 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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