Yesterday, NTCA (the rural broadband association) hosted a discussion on broadband in rural schools and libraries. Suzanne Thompson of Discovery Education set the tone for the event when she said in her opening remarks, “Broadband has become the brains of the community.” Jason Daniels, a 4th grade teacher in Alaska’s highly rural Kenai Peninsula, illustrated the truth of this powerful proposition when he described the ways in which his students recently leveraged broadband-enabled digital technology to learn about forest fire succession. Mr. Daniels’ students used digital content offered by Discovery Education—a provider of digital learning services –to participate in trivia games, use an interactive map of a recent forest fire and create personalized digital “posters” replete with embedded videos and interactive graphics. Mr. Daniels’ lesson was a smashing success—but because connectivity is spotty and inconsistent in and around the rural communities of the Kenai Peninsula, he is uncertain of the extent to which he will be able to utilize digital content in his lesson plans moving forward. His uncertainty is a symptom of a larger problem: There is a broad bandwidth gap within highly rural American communities. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater acknowledged today that in Alaska, there is a growing “…tension between the haves and the have nots…”
“[School] connectivity ranges between 2 and 300 Mbps in our District,” he said.
U.S. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska spoke further to the connectivity challenges in Alaska in his keynote address. “The [connectivity] issues are immense,” Begich said. “We have huge opportunities in Alaska, but we lack basic infrastructure.” He went on to highlight the need to deploy fiber in Alaska in order to close the connectivity gap.
The question of how policymakers can ensure that everyone living and learning within rural states like Alaska has access to high-capacity broadband was the focus of the panel discussion that followed Senator Begich’s remarks. Representing the library community on the panel was Marijke Visser, Assistant Director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy. She was joined by Corey Williams of the National Education Association (NEA) and Laurie Quarles of the American Association of Community Colleges. Visser highlighted the important role libraries play in educating people of all ages, and argued that building broadband capacity in libraries strengthens the community. “We [libraries] complete education,” she said. “Learning doesn’t stop at 3:00. It continues 24-7. We need to make sure we’re not just connected, but that we’re connected to high-capacity, scalable broadband.” She then pointed to the success the Alaska State Library has recently had in working with providers through its BTOP-funded “Online with Libraries” (OWL) project and to the diverse array of communities and individuals libraries serve as evidence that the library community is in touch with the capacity needs of all Americans.
Visser went on to counsel that we should not let the bandwidth deficits in the education community today temper our expectations for the future of broadband in rural libraries and schools. “In rural communities, do we need a gigabit? The answer is yes,” she said. “We’re planning for the future of our students and the future of our workforce. In thinking about broadband, we have to focus not on where we are, but on what we can envision for our communities in the future.”
Visser was a passionate and articulate voice for libraries at yesterday’s event. Her perspectives combined with those of the day’s other speakers to paint a clear picture of the connectivity challenges and opportunities facing the rural education community. The American Library Association is deeply invested in improving broadband capacity in rural schools and libraries. We are currently working to inform the FCC’s ongoing efforts to modernize the E-rate program, which provides libraries and schools with broadband connections at discounted rates. You can read our latest comments to the FCC on E-rate modernization on fcc.gov.