Rural has been on my mind of late. In part because of having traveled recently to a conference in the Midwest and looking out the plane window over the patchwork fields and thinking about how remote some of the farms are and wondering whether the families have a fiber connection, or dial-up or satellite internet–or none at all and then wondering how far it was to the town I could see in the distance and then wondering if the town had a library and what the connection speed was like at the library. Then I wondered what kinds of services the library would be providing and whether it had robust Wi-Fi for the kids who come in after school. Then I wondered how much the library was paying for the connection. And, of course I wondered if the library had access to a fiber connection or whether it too was limited in the speeds it could receive.
Airplane musings aside, I really have rural on my mind because of the ongoing efforts at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get those libraries and those families and their communities connected to the kind of speeds I (in theory, anyway) have access to back on the ground in D.C. The importance of what we’re trying to accomplish through the E-rate proceeding was made ever more clear to me last week. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend an event hosted by the White House Rural Council for members of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. The event focused on the association’s Smart Rural Community initiative and specifically on the 2014 award winners in that initiative. While I am still learning the details of everything NTCA members do for their communities, what I have gained thus far is a further appreciation for the difference strong, committed, and collaborative leadership can make in building a successful community broadband solution. The White House event provided a forum for awardees to highlight the impact their smart rural community has on the opportunities and quality of life for the residents of those communities.
For example, in the presentation by Nancy J. White, chief executive officer of North Central Telephone Cooperative (Lafayette, Tenn.), we heard about the work her company has undertaken to improve access to state-of-the-art healthcare for her rural community. Keith Gabbard, general manager of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (McKee, Ky.) described a program to provide virtual classes to students during extreme winter weather when schools close and also a partnership with the public library to provide digital literacy training which is especially important as this community has the highest unemployment rate in the state. We also heard from Brian Thomason, general manager and chief executive officer of Blue Valley Tele-Communications, Inc. (Home, Kan.) who spoke eloquently about the role of high-capacity broadband in spurring economic development and allowing rural America to flourish.
Libraries support smart rural communities
Anecdotes from libraries in rural America echo the experiences of the NTCA members I spoke with at the event. A library in Mississippi that helped a family with a special needs child connect to classes that allowed him graduate from school; libraries in Georgia that helped over the road truckers complete an online certification course so they can maintain their license and their livelihood; a library in Maine where a self-employed video editor uploads work for his clients across the country because his home connection is too slow; a library in Alaska that connected a parent to a medical specialist so she could complete six weeks of training to take care of her child with diabetes; a library that provides Wi-Fi for a mother to Skype regularly with her son stationed in Afghanistan; or a library that streamed a granddaughter’s graduation in Germany for her grandmother. These examples should be commonplace and could be if there were more communities where the lack of access to affordable high-capacity broadband was not an issue.
The well-connected library is the quintessential community access point for completing Education, jumpstarting Employment and Entrepreneurship, fostering individual Empowerment, and encouraging community Engagement. High-capacity broadband is the crucial foundation on which The E’s of Librariesâ„¢ are built. The NTCA members that were recognized for their role in developing smart rural communities provide important opportunities for libraries (and other anchor institutions), but it is the difference of opportunity for the residents which we all work to ensure that was highlighted that day.
As Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, said in her remarks at the event, it is the storytelling that should be celebrated. I would add, especially in D.C. where the policy making is so often divorced from the potential impact it could have if done right. Right when it comes to broadband and rural libraries means having options for affordable high-capacity broadband so that more libraries can be part of the stories I heard from the Smart Rural Community award winners.