On April 17, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) held a hearing in Washington, D.C., to focus on the role that libraries play in providing internet services in the U.S. IMLS—charged with advising the president and Congress about the library, museum, and information service needs of the American public—organized the event to “establish a public record about the impact of high speed broadband connectivity in America’s libraries,” explained IMLS director Susan H. Hildreth in her opening remarks. “It will help inform policy discussions and strategies to support broadband in the nation’s libraries.” Without greater support for libraries to provide high-speed access to information, the country’s digital divide will only grow larger in the future.
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), spoke at the event as well and was noted for his active work to modernize the E-Rate, which has been a key resource of telecommunications discounts for libraries and schools. Hildreth reported on an analysis of E-Rate information just completed by IMLS that found “a total of 15,551 individual libraries have used the discounts provided by the E-Rate. Now this actual number varies from year to year. However, in looking at 11 years’ worth of data that we had, we found that the annual participation rate ranged from 67% to 73% of all the libraries in the U.S., so we are taking advantage of this program.”
Created as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the E-Rate program—officially called Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries—allows “[e]ligible schools, school districts and libraries” to apply for funding “under five categories of service: telecommunications, telecommunications services, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance of internal connections.” The FCC website notes that “discounts for support depend on the level of poverty and whether the school or library is located in an urban or rural area. The discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services. E-rate program funding is based on demand up to an annual Commission-established cap of about $2.3 billion.”
Libraries as Key to Addressing the Digital Divide
“In many ways, the digital divide is as big as it’s ever been, and that’s really because so much of the world has moved exclusively online,” noted Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the District of Columbia Public Library, in his welcome to the audience. “And those of us who haven’t are really at an increasing risk.”
“The issue we are discussing today is of great importance to the millions of Americans who use broadband at the nation’s 17,000 public libraries,” Hildreth reminded attendees, “as well as those who use broadband at home to access library resources. Every day, children, teens, and adults use broadband at their local library to further their education, find workforce and health information, seek digital literacy training, and much more.” Hildreth was joined on the podium by members of the National Museum and Library Services Board and other invited speakers.
“Access to high-speed internet connections is a vital resource to all citizens in our world today,” Omaha Public Library executive director Gary Wasdin reflected after speaking at the IMLS event, “and public libraries continue to be the primary provider for many. The library serves not just as a point of entry, but as a resource for support and continual education, a place where anyone can get online and get help with the work they need to accomplish to improve and enhance their lives. The federal E-rate program has helped libraries and schools since 1996, but that support has not grown along with the demand. Revisions to this important program are needed in order to ensure that our libraries can provide the educational, economic, and enrichment support that every citizen expects.”
Details of the IMLS Meeting
Today, 60% of American libraries offer the only free computer and internet access in their communities—yet only 9% report having the high-capacity connections needed to support these needs. “We know that one-third of all Americans, 100 million people have not adopted broadband high-speed internet at home for a variety of reasons,” Hildreth reported, “and we also know that 19 million do not have access at all. This has a dramatic impact on the capacity of public libraries to serve those left out of the benefits of full participation in a digital world, and the recent economic recession bears this out.”
“We also know that more than 80% of the Fortune 500 companies today require online job applications,” Wheeler pointed out. “To realistically succeed in today’s society, you need the internet. There can be no doubt that the speed of internet connections matter and are critical to making good on delivering the services and information our communities need.”
Wheeler noted that “the library has always been the on-ramp to the world of information and ideas, and now that on-ramp is at gigabyte speeds. But you know, as you all know, and as I am seeing as I travel across the country, libraries are playing a more and more and more important role in our communities as was pointed out earlier. It’s where Americans without computers go to get online. It’s where students after school go to get online. It’s where Americans go to apply for their VA benefits or apply for their healthcare or apply for their job. And it’s where librarians end up being the guide at the side as people make these kinds of digital explorations.”
The FCC Announces a Game-Change for Net Neutrality
Following up on this ongoing commitment, the FCC voted on proposed changes to Net Neutrality on April 24 to put the FCC’s policies in line with the federal appeals court decision 3 months ago, which ruled that ISPs can make deals with services such as Netflix or Amazon that allow them to pay for a “premium” type of access using a faster “express lane” on the web. The Verge reported that “the FCC’s position is that it is merely trying to defend net neutrality by keeping internet service providers from blocking legal traffic outright, and keeping them from unreasonably discriminating against traffic they’d rather not serve—just as it set out to do with its original Open Internet Rules in 2010—only this time in a way that will hold up in court, because a court struck down those original rules in January.”
Wheeler released this statement late on April 23, defending the need for the change as well as reiterating the FCC’s ongoing commitment to Net Neutrality and open access (OA): “There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. Tomorrow we will circulate to the Commission a new Open Internet proposal that will restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court’s ruling in January. There is no ‘turnaround in policy.’ The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.”
The initial reaction has been very negative in the open net community; however, it may be some time before the ramifications of these changes are known. Certainly there was no hint of any of this at the IMLS hearing.
Governmental and Business Efforts to Speed Up Access
On April 23, the FCC voted to shift $1.8 billion a year from the rural telephone subsidies in its Universal Service Fund to add support to its broadband-focused Connect America Fund, amounting to a 70% increase in broadband deployment subsidies. Over the next 5 years, this action will redirect $9 billion from traditional telephone subsidies to broadband subsidies, in order to bring high-speed internet services to 5 million rural U.S. residents who don’t currently have access.
On April 21, AT&T announced its 1-gigabit fiber-optic internet service plan, an “ultra-fast fiber network to up to 100 candidate cities and municipalities nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas,” which would greatly expand high-speed access (as well as AT&T’s competitive position in this market). Google isn’t far behind, with its Google Fiber project that is set to provide “up to 1,000 Mbps, Google Fiber is 100 times faster than today’s basic broadband, allowing you to get what you want instantaneously” to communities in more metropolitan areas by the end of 2014. Currently the service is only available in Provo, Utah; Kansas City, Mo.; and Austin, Texas. In February, Google announced an additional 34 cities of interest but noted the need to work with civic leaders to sort out “challenges that are unique to local areas before promising any further launches.” Google’s experience hasn’t been as smooth as the company would like. In Kansas City, the company found that although many residents had signed up for the enhanced broadband access, there was a clear demarcation that reflected economic disparities in that community. So, the digital divide continues.
Not to be left behind, Facebook has announced its own plan to bring broadband to the world. Its Connectivity Lab is busy building drones, lasers, and satellites as an alternative delivery mode. In announcing this collaborative effort with various telecom providers, Mark Zuckerberg revealed that “our goal with Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world. We’ve made good progress so far. Over the past year, our work in the Philippines and Paraguay alone has doubled the number of people using mobile data with the operators we’ve partnered with, helping 3 million new people access the internet. We’re going to continue building these partnerships, but connecting the whole world will require inventing new technology too. That’s what our Connectivity Lab focuses on, and there’s a lot more exciting work to do here.”