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What’s next for libraries? E-Rate, bandwidth, benchmarks and capacity goals

At the forefront of our minds right now are the many questions posed in the E-rate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and how they may affect libraries. This notice, with over 600 questions, is the most comprehensive review of the program since it began in 1997. ALA and the library community need to review these other broadband initiatives and research to better craft our comments. Let’s start with this question the FCC poses:

We also seek comment on the appropriate bandwidth target for libraries. … We seek comment on whether a target of 1 Gbps for all libraries by 2020 is an appropriate measure or whether we should set some other minimum level of broadband speed for libraries necessary to meet our proposed measure and what that should be. What are the challenges to libraries and the E-rate program of meeting this goal (1 Gbps by 2020)? What percent of libraries currently have 100 Mbps connectivity? What percent of libraries currently have 1 Gbps connectivity? (NPRM paragraph 25)

The FCC’s question is framed in context with a target proposed by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) for K-12 schools: 100 Mbps per 1,000 users (by the 2014-15 school year) increasing to 1 Gbps per 1,000 users (by 2017-18).

Now, knowing the diversity of our libraries and the communities they serve, ALA is leery of one-size-fits-all solutions. However,  it is important to seriously engage this question all the same. The Government Accountability Office has called for the FCC to develop measurable goals in the past, so determining realistic goals could help address some of these concerns. What do you think the goal should be? Or, should we even have a national goal?

Like many in the library world, I came to the land of LANs, WANs, fiber optic networks, routers and switches because robust library digital services demand increased knowledge of telecommunications infrastructure and effective advocacy to support library networks.

Now, of course, broadband-related projects litter every corner of my desk–including the current E-rate proceeding, the soft launch of the Edge Initiative, a report on Libraries and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, gigabit library networks and preparation for the launch of the Digital Inclusion Survey. This is an amazing time of opportunity, challenges, and some risk for our nation’s libraries.

So, if we had a broadband goal for libraries, what should it be based on? Is it our library card holders? This is immediately problematic in that most libraries allow non-card holders (even if only temporarily) to use their public access computers. There also is no standard for updating our records of card holders, and using a card-holder metric could actually discourage regular updates of these records.

Is it our library service area, since these are the people that a given library is legally obligated to serve based on its organization and funding? Maybe, but this isn’t exactly commensurate with the school goal, as we know that all residents in our service area will not use the library in a given year.

Or maybe we should look to the Edge Initiative to consider what is minimally needed, and what are aspirational goals that some libraries already are meeting. Benchmark 9.2 reads: “The library meets or exceeds the minimum bandwidth capacity necessary to support public user demand.” At the most basic, Edge calls for each public Internet user to be allocated at least 128 Kbps upload and 512 Kbps download of network broadband capacity. At the more aspirational end, the metric is more in line with SETDA’s goal: at least 500 Kbps upload and 1 Mbps download per user. The benchmark also accounts for wireless users in its calculation. But it may not be enough to enable the innovation and creativity we’re already seeing from libraries using gigabit networks.

An important (yet challenging) part of this benchmark is the upload speed. With increasingly interactive internet uses–included high-definition videoconferencing and uploading audio and video files–it’s not just the speed of the download, but the upload speed and the quality of the connection as it relates to latency, jitter or packet loss (referenced in paragraph 28 of the NPRM).

Other approaches might be to suggest that the goal should evolve over time: perhaps 500 Kbps per use now and 1 Mbps by 2017 and 2 Mbps by 2020? Or there might be a different set of goals for higher-cost rural areas of the country.

So where do libraries stand right now in terms of their bandwidth? Much of what we know comes thanks to libraries that completed the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study–most recently in Fall 2011. From that data (and earlier surveys), we know that library bandwidth speeds are improving, but not fast enough to keep up with demand. About 9 percent of libraries reported then that they had internet speeds of 100Mbps or greater. While the divide between urban (18% at 100 Mbps or higher) and rural (5%) libraries is as significant here as in other bandwidth ranges, urban libraries are supporting more devices and users. The bottom line for all libraries, though, is that they should have access to affordable, high-capacity networks to support their communities.

After Labor Day, ALA and the University of Maryland will begin collecting the most current data on library broadband speeds through the Digital Inclusion Survey, which will support libraries participating in the Edge initiative, increase our knowledge about library technology resources and further improve our advocacy. For the first time, libraries also will be able to see their data within a community context (including demographics, unemployment and graduation rates). Technology moves fast, so we have to keep moving faster.

The ALA generally opposes set mandates or one-size solutions. But having broadband targets–which still accommodate local variations and needs–may help focus national attention and motivate investment in the infrastructure libraries need to meet 21st century demands. So, what do you think? Let us know in the comment section.

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Larra Clark

Larra Clark is the deputy director of both the Public Library Association and Washington Office’s public policy team. Larra received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona and has a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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