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Leading library professionals offer important perspectives at FCC E-rate modernization workshop

FCC BuildingLibrary and school broadband took center stage last week at a day-long Federal Communications Commission (FCC) workshop on E-rate modernization. The workshop convened library professionals, education administrators, non-profit leaders and local government officials to discuss a host of connectivity topics, including the importance of internal connections in libraries and schools; the need to provide “last mile” connections to library patrons and students living in underserved areas; the challenges and benefits of collective internet access and network services purchasing; and the challenge of improving technical assistance services in libraries and schools. The workshop afforded the library community an additional opportunity to offer our perspectives and guidance to the FCC as it continues its E-rate modernization proceeding.

Libraries were well represented at last Tuesday’s workshop. In the morning session, Corrine Hill, executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library and 2014 Library Journal Librarian of the Year, discussed how robust library connectivity in Chattanooga is fostering local innovation and creating opportunities for entrepreneurship.

“Because we have high-speed broadband access, I’ve watched Chattanooga Public Library become a lab for the freelance job market,” she said. “We are seeing an onslaught of folks who have ideas an need a place to work through those ideas…The library is filling that need. We are taking an idea from discovery to traction.”

One company in Chattanooga used library software to develop new videoconferencing technology; and that same company brought a computer coding instruction program for young students to Chattanooga libraries.

In addition to creating education and economic development opportunities, high-speed broadband allows libraries to serve as factories of life-changing innovation. Using the 3D printer at the Chattanooga Public Library, a father created a robotic device that allows his child who was born without arms or legs to eat without assistance.

Maggie discovers 3D printing at the Chattanooga Public Library
Maggie discovers 3D printing at the Chattanooga Public Library

Hill put these examples of the importance of library broadband in an important context when she said:

This is not about downloading a full season of ‘House of Cards’ or streaming ‘Scandal’…We know it’s about providing access to job information, government information, health information [and] local, national and international news. We know this is about being engaged in your community…and creating a culture of digital excellence.

In the afternoon, a roundtable of education and library professionals discussed different approaches to enhancing efforts to get high-speed broadband to the front doors of anchor institutions, as well as to the students and patrons that use them on a regular basis. Offering library perspectives were 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.

The roundtable first discussed some of the challenges of deploying wireless broadband within the walls of libraries and schools. David Leonard discussed the importance of taking into account the challenges posed by varying building architectures in designing internal wiring configurations in library facilities.

“Not all buildings are created equal,” he counseled. “One hundred sixty-six year-old buildings provide most horrid challenges for wireless access deployment, in combination with a building that was built in the last year or two, but really needs access points…”

The early-afternoon remarks of Letourneau, Almond and Aldrich highlighted another significant impediment to deploying WiFi within libraries and library systems: the lack of access most librarians have to technical networking support. The ensuing discussions yielded several possible solutions to this problem–including holding networking instruction programs for librarians and providing coordinated technical support through state libraries or other appropriate entities.

Later in the afternoon, the roundtable discussed at length the challenges and advantages of purchasing consortia. Jeff Letourneau explained that well-organized consortia often benefit libraries immensely by helping them “get organized, aggregate demand, have buying power and leverage best practices.” Emily Almond warned that consortia should not place libraries at the mercy of vendors.

“[We cannot] allow vendors to dictate what [we] can afford if the market says something else…We have to be flexible and take advantage of possibilities,” Almond said.

Using personal anecdotes and data, the workshop’s library representatives clearly elucidated both the importance of library broadband access and the challenges of broadband deployment to and within libraries. In the coming weeks, the FCC will release its final order on E-rate modernization, taking into account information collected from public events like this one, as well as from months of focused stakeholder comments.

Librarians often refer to The E’s of Librariesâ„¢–Education, Employment, Entrepreneurship, Empowerment, and Engagement–in discussing the role of libraries in the community. For libraries to effectively serve the needs of their patrons across each of the dimensions of life represented by the E’s, one more “E” must be added to the equation: Excellent library broadband capacity. ALA hopes that the Commission’s final E-rate rules will help libraries gain the capacity they need to be leaders in the increasingly competitive global environment, and will ensure that E-rate funds are being employed in the most efficient way possible. You can read the latest comments ALA submitted to the FCC on E-rate modernization here.

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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