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Librarians headline national BTOP summit

More than 100 representatives of community anchor institutions, telecom policymakers, and broadband providers convened on March 29, 2011, at the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition BTOP Summit in Washington, D.C.

Over the course of the day, attendees heard keynote addresses from U.S. Rep. Doris O. Matsui (D-CA-5) and Lawrence Strickling, Administrator of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), as well as a closing address from Carol Mattey, Deputy Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. The event was organized in order to demonstrate the success of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — aka the “economic stimulus bill” — and enacted in February 2009.

The act gave NTIA the authority to award approximately $4 billion in broadband grants in four categories — Public Computer Center projects (PCC), Sustainable Broadband Adoption projects (SBA), Infrastructure projects, and Broadband Mapping.  More than 230 BTOP projects were awarded.  The SHLB Coalition invited grantees from the PCC, SBA and Infrastructure categories to discuss their progress in implementing their grants.  The Summit focused particular attention on the libraries, schools, health care providers and other anchor institutions that received grants and/or are benefiting from the deployment of next generation broadband networks.

“The event was extremely successful, and several attendees said it was one of the most informative conferences they have attended, largely because of the great mix of anchor institutions, network providers, policy-makers and foundations.  Several attendees commented that they benefitted from hearing a diversity of perspectives about these projects,” said SHLB Coordinator John Windhausen.

What information and lessons were state library staff able to share about their BTOP efforts to date?

Fast Forward New Mexico

New Mexico State Librarian Susan Oberlander presented information about Fast Forward New Mexico (FFNM), which received an SBA grant to encourage the general public to subscribe to broadband service.   Digital literacy training is a central element of the project, with classes in basic computer/Internet use and tools for small business in 16 public libraries. Classes are available in English and Spanish, and 1,200 people have received training to date.  FFNM is conducting outreach and marketing the value of digital literacy by hosting town-hall meetings and planning for a statewide summit that will address barriers to adoption, including availability, cost, relevancy and usability.

Preliminary findings presented include:

  • 80 percent of students in small business training classes have broadband — but want to expand their knowledge of computers and relevant online resources;
  • Despite town-wide media outreach, 40 percent of all digital literacy students learn about training through the library;
  • Enrollment in digital literacy classes greatly exceeded expectations of library directors, who often were initially skeptical that classes would fill.
  • 73 percent of students use computers at their local library, and 42 percent use one at a friend or family member’s house; and
  • Acceptance and support of the FFNM program by community organizations and community leaders is largely attributed to the unique position libraries hold in their communities as a neutral, non-commercial, safe place.

“Libraries are trusted local institutions that disarm skepticism and fear of an agenda,” according to Oberlander.

Broadband Express @ your library

Mary Ann Stiefvater, Cultural Education Specialist in the New York State Education Department’s Division of Library Development, shared a simple message: The state’s Public Computing Center (PCC) initiative “has demonstrated libraries’ ability to connect job seekers with resources, referrals and other career-building support services. Libraries also provide the tools to overcome the barriers of the digital divide through computer skills and searching skills classes and free access to computers.” Broadband Express @ your library is establishing 30 PCCs in libraries around the state, as well as supporting five e-mobile computing training units with high speed broadband services that are deployed in rural locations and underserved communities.

Potential participants had to apply to participate in this project which, among other things, provided funds for adequate staff to support digital literacy efforts. Project participants also have had to develop outreach plans to connect with members of the community; form robust community partnerships with other organizations, including local Chambers of Commerce; and utilize a variety of formats to disseminate information regarding PCC services. Nearly 190 unique partnerships have been established across the state. “By establishing partnerships with other community anchor institutions, this project has enabled PCCs to serve as a catalyst for the development of new and better models for sharing information and services,” Stiefvater said.

So far, New York PCCs have provided 1,500 hours of instruction focused on skills building and the information needs of small businesses. The state library supports local libraries with a listserv and a website that shared curriculum and news stories, continuing education for PCC staff, and funds a workforce development database accessible to all.

Infrastructure Projects

Several representatives of infrastructure projects outlined the benefits that their new broadband networks would bring to libraries and other anchor institutions.  For instance, the Utah Education Network (UEN) initially proposed to construct a middle mile broadband network connecting approximately 130 anchor institutions, including many public libraries.  Now that it is implementing the grant, it is realizing some additional efficiencies that will allow it to expand their service to connect more than 170 anchor institutions.   Similarly, the MERIT network in Michigan has received two BTOP grants that is using to deploy next-generation broadband infrastructure to libraries and other anchor institutions throughout the state, especially the northern and rural areas of Michigan.

What’s next?

While BTOP grantees continue to build infrastructure and support access to technology and digital literacy, libraries must continue to keep their programs and activities visible to elected officials and other key stakeholders. While in D.C., many summit attendees visited their members of Congress to share BTOP impacts and plans, and many libraries are hosting kick-off events that raise awareness of the roles libraries are playing in their communities. These efforts support longer term goals of ensuring improved connectivity for libraries beyond the BTOP program.

“The National Broadband Plan issued by the Federal Communications Commission last year called for 1Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions like libraries, and we’re still far short,” said Larra Clark, director, OITP Program on Networks. “As Deputy Chief Mattey commented in her closing remarks, the Universal Service Reform proceedings may provide opportunities for infrastructure improvements that support anchor institutions and their communities.

“The ALA and SHLB — of which ALA is a founding member — will submit comments as part of a current Notice of Proposed Rulemaking supporting the establishment of a Connect America Fund that would support universal access to broadband, including anchor institutions. Stay tuned!”

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