Boosting Public Broadband, One Library At A Time
This week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $7 million grant to invest in the expansion in broadband access in libraries across seven states. While $7 million may sound like chump change from a foundation that routinely spends hundreds of millions at a time on public heath philanthropy, it serves as an important reminder of the continuing role that libraries play in bridging the digital divide.
The Gates Foundation awarded $6.9 million to Connected Nation, a nonprofit group advocating bridging the broadband digital divide, and the American Library Association’s Office of Information Technology Policy. The bulk of the funding – more than six million dollars – will go to Connected Nation to launch state initiatives in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, then organize a broadband summit to bring relevant stakeholders together. The balance of the grant, meanwhile, will go to the ALA, so they can help provide broadband strategy expertise to libraries in the seven states.
“Through this pilot program, we will help to ensure that public libraries in seven states have support to improve their Internet speeds, ensuring that all people have the chance to connect to information, education, and economic opportunity,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Gates Foundation. “Public libraries across the country have played an integral role in closing the digital divide for millions of Americans, but local governments, communities, and library supporters must do more to ensure libraries can continue to provide fast, reliable Internet service for communities.”
The Gates Foundation noted that a recent study by the ALA found that nearly three out of four libraries - 73% - are the only source of free public Internet access in their communities. “Despite overwhelming demand for technology services,” they added, “up to a third of all public libraries have Internet connections that are too slow to meet the everyday needs of their patrons.” To address this, they plan to increase average speeds at libraries to a minimum of 1.5 Mbps.
The study also shed light on a variety of other challenges faced by libraries, as noted by the technology policy blog Ars Technica:
These libraries are feeling the squeeze, too. Over 57 percent of libraries (up from 52 percent in the ALA’s 2006-2007 study) report that their connectivity is too slow some or all of the time, and over 82 percent report that they don’t have enough workstations some or all of the time. Because of these and other constraints, over 90 percent of libraries impose time limits on public Internet workstations, with 45.7 percent using a 60-minute limit, and 35.2 percent cutting users off at just 30 minutes; hardly enough time to finish registering at Monster.com or complete that web-based art history exam.
Because $7 million won’t go very far, they’re going to invite libraries involved in the pilot area to submit proposal for additional funds as needed. They will be expected to work with the two grantees to ensure that their proposal is sustainable over the long haul. Meanwhile, there are a variety of proposals floating out there encouraging the incoming administration to invest in broadband infrastructure, from Free Press’ $44 billion proposal to EDUCAUSE’s $100 billion proposal. These plans, of course, are serious money, particularly given the current economic climate, though Free Press argues that it would fit well into Obama’s goal of spurring national infrastructure initiatives to kickstart the economy.
Frankly, the word “kickstart” has been going through my head ever since I heard about the Gates Foundation grant, because it harkens back to 1996 KickStart Initiative, a campaign that was a direct result of President Clinton’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAAC). That council was brought together at the start of his first administration to explore the potential socio-economic impact of the so-called information superhighway, and what might happen if not everyone was connected. NIIAC’s final recommendations to the president, which turned into the KickStart initiative, was to make serious investments in bringing Internet access to America’s most well established public institutions – namely schools and libraries – because they were community hubs that could best serve the information needs of underserved communities. All of this work led directly to the creation of the E-Rate program, the $2.25 billion government fund that subsidizes Internet access in schools and libraries. The E-Rate has done a lot to connect these institutions to the Net, but as the ALA study suggests, infrastructure is lagging, and their connections are falling behind, even when compared to some of the Internet connections many of us now have at home.
Seven million dollars. It’s pocket change for an entity like the Gates Foundation, but given how endowments across the US are getting slammed by the downturn in stocks, it’s an investment they could have chosen to postpone or not make at all. And given the momentum that’s building for a nationwide broadband upgrade, it may only be the beginning. -andy