Digital divide: broadband, the underserved, and libraries


Digital divide

Education and economic well-being depend more and more on electronic information and communication.

Not everyone in the US has equal access to computers and Internet service.

Not everyone who does can use it through wireless devices (wi-fi).

The difference between the haves and have-nots is known as the digital divide. In partnership with the Federal Government and private foundations, public libraries take a leading role in closing the gap.

Federal Communications Commission and E-rate


Broadband connections

“Digital divide,” a recent term, covers an issue that predates computers.

The Telecommunications Act of 1934 mandated “universal service,” equal access to telephone service for everyone in the country.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded the definition of universal service to include advanced services such as Internet access.

To that end, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administers a program known as E-rate, the federal government’s largest educational technology program. E-rate primarily serves public schools. Public libraries receive much less funding.

When E-rate started in 1997, only 14% of American classrooms had Internet service, and three of four of those used dial-up.

By 2006, 94% of classrooms and 98% of public libraries had Internet connection. Unfortunately, even though dial-up is a thing of the past, too many schools and libraries lack the broadband capacity to take full advantage of rapidly evolving learning technologies.

(The terms broadband and bandwidth refer to the speed of an Internet connection. More bandwidth means a faster connection and therefore capacity to handle greater demands on the system.)

The FCC’s 2010 survey found that half of our schools and public libraries have slower connection speeds than the average American home. The American Library Association reported that 41% of public libraries fail to meet patrons’ needs at least some of the time for lack of adequate bandwidth.

The FCC is modernizing the program with three goals:

  • Increased broadband capacity
  • Cost-effective purchasing
  • Streamlined program administration.

Those goals require a new formula for distributing the funds. The FCC has announced plans for every library to receive at least $6000 per year. Beyond that, the FCC proposes to pay $1 per square foot of each library’s facilities.

The agency proposes to pay schools $150 per student. Because libraries measure and report statistics for visitors and visitor usage differently, it is difficult to arrive at reliable and useful figures for funding based on library visits. A square foot is a square foot anywhere. But is the easiest formula the best?

The Urban Libraries Council (ULC), in a letter signed by the directors of more than 100 public library systems and dated May 21, 2014, protested the proposal’s inequitable distribution of funds. Directors of at least nine city libraries sent their own letters, most signed July 1 or 2, 2014.

Urban Libraries Council’s counterproposal


Broadband infographic

Paying on the basis of the size of library facilities will give more money to suburban libraries than urban libraries.

Urban librarians, therefore, prefer a plan based on the number of people who use library Internet facilities.

In general, urban public libraries serve a more needy population. Increasing the E-rate for suburban libraries more than suburban libraries would actually widen one aspect of the digital divide.

Several of the library directors also wrote that the infrastructure for broadband costs them $4-5 per square foot.

Here are some of the issues that the ULC and the directors’ letters have raised:

  • Urban libraries are smaller than suburban libraries and serve more patrons in smaller spaces.
  • If a library building is 50 years old or older, retrofitting it for wi-fi can involve expenses unrelated to wireless capacity, such as dealing with asbestos.
  • The height of ceilings, weather patterns, and presence or lack of interference from surrounding buildings likewise affect the efficiency and maintenance of infrastructure.
  • Given two rooms of the same size with the same network, a crowded room will provide poorer wi-fi service than a less crowded room.
  • While many patrons bring their own devices, public libraries must provide tablets and the like for other, usually poorer patrons.
  • Public libraries receive about 3% of E-rate funding, but library buildings represent 15% of the total buildings receiving funds. Public libraries serve a population six times as much as that served by schools—and also serve the school students. They also receive less federal funding than any other civic/learning institution.
  • If the E-rate had been adjusted for inflation, it would already have more than $1 billion than current spending levels.

None of the FCC documents I have found issued since July 2 address the funding issues. The commission must still be deliberating on how to respond to the ULC’s request for changing the proposed formula. But in any case, its own pages display a great sense of urgency to improve and upgrade E-rate.

Knight News Challenge and the digital divide

New York Public Library

New York Public Library, Main Branch–with one of the famous lions

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, assisted by the Ford Foundation and Mozilla, sponsored a competition for proposals to bridge the digital divide by making Internet service more equitably available.

Two libraries, the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Chicago Public Library (CPL) were among 19 winners.

At NYPL, 55% of users of free Internet and computers, and 68% of those making less than $25,000 a year, do not have Internet access at home.

It doesn’t matter how much free electronic content libraries provide if people can’t take advantage of it. When NYPL branches are open, patrons must line up for Internet services. When they’re closed, people sit outside the library to take advantage of whatever access leaks outside the building.

The library purchased 100 MIFI portable hotspots and devised a way of leaking intentionally. The Knight Foundation money will enable it to expand its collection to 10,000 hot spots for patrons to take home.

At least initially, it will lend the hotspots only to people who are enrolled in one of the library’s online educational programs. That stipulation insures that patrons are using the equipment for educational work and that they already have an ongoing relationship with the library.

NYPL will be working with library systems in Brooklyn and Queens to make sure that the program covers the whole city. It also partners with state library systems in Kansas and Maine in order to adapt the concept for use in public libraries throughout the country.

The CPL’s plan is less ambitious, but no less important. It will likewise check out hotspots through six branches in neighborhoods with especially poor broadband access.

The digital divide has existed for a long time. It is a complex problem, or rather a number of different but interrelated problems. Our society is not bridging the gap as quickly as anyone would like. But that’s not for lack of commitment and imagination on the part of the federal government, private foundations, or the nation’s urban public libraries.

Fact sheet: Update Of E-Rate For Broadband In Schools And Libraries / US Federal Communications Commission
Urban libraries say they’re getting shortchanged in a battle for WiFi funding / Brian Fung (Washington Post)
Directors of Several Urban Public Libraries Send Letters to FCC Re: Proposed E-Rate Funding Plan / Gary Price (Infodocket) – this post contains links to both the directors’ letters and various material submitted by the ULC
19 projects win Knight News Challenge on strengthening the Internet / John Bracken (Knight Blog)
Check out the Internet & Internet to go: two library wifi programs funded by the Knight Foundation / J. Nathan Matias (MIT Center for Civic Media)
CPL, NYPL WiFi Hotspot Lending Programs Funded by Knight Foundation Grants / Matt Enis (The Digital Shift)

Photo credits:
Digital divide circle. Source unknown.
Broadband connections. Source unknown.
Broadband infographic. Source unknown.
New York Public Library. Some rights reserved by Stephen Douglas

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