What libraries need from key U.S. technology program

By Valerie Strauss July 10

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
 

I’ve
published two posts this week about the federal “E-Rate” program —
which offers discounts to schools and libraries  for Internet access and
telecommunications — and a modernization plan that the Federal
Communications Commission will take up at its meeting Friday.

The first post
urged the FCC to approve the plan as a first step in improving the
program. It was co-written by Julius Genachowski, managing director of
The Carlyle Group and former FCC chairman, and Jim Coulter, a
commissioner of the bi-partisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital
Commission and co-founder of TPG Holdings. The second post said
that the plan before the FCC  is inadequate and does not address
suggestions filed by more than 600 educators on how to modernize the
E-Rate program to meet their classroom needs. It was written by Brian
Lewis, chief executive officer of the International Society for
Technology in Education.

In the following post,  Emily Sheketoff,
director of the Washington office of the American Library Association,
offers a third view on the E-Rate modernization plan.

By Emily Sheketoff

Most
parents and families understand that learning does not stop at the
school door, at the start of summer break, or upon graduation. Whether
it’s education for K-12 or non-traditional students, or early learners
and adult learners, libraries complete education. In fact, the Pew
Internet Project found that 94 percent of parents say libraries are
important for their children, including 79 percent who described
libraries as “very important.”

Today,
modern library service depends on high-capacity broadband, which the
federal E-rate program is essential in supporting. More than 77 million
people log on to public library networks in a year. Yet, despite literally
being part of the name of the “Universal Service Program for Schools
and Libraries” (or the E-rate program), libraries are often overlooked
in conversations about modernizing this vital program and ensuring
digital opportunity. This is a problem.

America’s
libraries are in the center of the reform debate as recipients of
E-rate funding and as the only providers of free public Internet access
in more than 60 percent of communities. Our nation’s public libraries
depend on affordable, scalable, high-capacity broadband in order to
complete Education, jump-start Employment and Entrepreneurship, and
foster individual Empowerment and Engagement, or the E’s of Libraries™.
The services today’s libraries provide are not “nice to have.” They are
critical for communities nationwide. Libraries serve everyone from
birth through Medicare Part D, and librarians provide the expert
assistance integral to successfully navigating the digital world.

Just
about a year ago, there was great optimism among those who care deeply
about the little-known but critical E-rate program when the Federal
Communications Commission took on the challenge President Obama’s
ConnectED initiative issued. We planned to set targets for measuring our
progress in deploying high-capacity broadband to libraries and schools.
We aimed to streamline an application process that everyone agreed was
too complicated and cumbersome. And we sought to be the best possible
stewards of funding that has hardly budged since the program was
established 18 years ago—while cost of living has climbed and technology
use has exploded.

Now we hold our collective breath to see
whether we will sink into gridlock or find a path forward for our
students and communities. If Washington  is not the originator of the
“false dilemma,” it certainly is its most active practitioner. This is
clear in the charged debate around E-rate reform. The American Library
Association (ALA) believes there are valuable nuanced approaches that
would result in immediate positive impact for libraries, schools and the
people we serve.

We
see merit in immediately addressing the widely shared concern about
substandard Wi-Fi in library and school buildings to meet mobile
technology demands. According to FCC data, libraries have received only 1
percent of the available funding for Wi-Fi and related services over
the course of the E-rate program. And in the last funding year no
libraries or schools received Wi-Fi funding. At the same time, we hold
the Commission to its commitment to ensure these vital community
institutions have high-capacity broadband “to” the building, and not just “within
the building. Both are necessary for libraries to provide the nearly
endless array of vital services that they offer, including, but not
limited to: online digital learning; videoconferencing for small
businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as for job interviews; access to
real-time healthcare information with medical professionals; and
opportunities to connect with family across states, countries, and
continents.

Virtually all public libraries now provide free
public access to Wi-Fi, and use of these networks in (and around) our
libraries is exploding. Libraries host more than 1.5 billion in-person
visits each year, and Wi-Fi is now considered a foundational and
essential library service that enables access to the public internet, as
well as a growing range of digital content. Accordingly, it is vital
that the Commission adequately fund internal connections and Wi-Fi, as
well as allow for the flexibility, local planning and decision-making
needed to develop robust Wi-Fi networks for all libraries and the people
they serve.

FCC Chairman Wheeler’s draft proposal—which no one
but other commissioners have been able to read in detail—will not
single-handedly boost global competitiveness nor will it kill E-rate as
we know (and value) it. It is, however, an important first step in
connecting all learners to the high-capacity broadband critical for
digital opportunity. Wi-Fi doesn’t work without adequate broadband to
support it, and there is more work to be done to further improve and
strengthen the E-rate program for more productive years ahead. But to
further delay action will shortchange our nation’s public libraries and
the communities they serve.