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November 27, 2014

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The FCC To Vote on $2 Billion E-Rate Proposal, Librarians Are Speaking Out

marijke web revised feature The FCC To Vote on $2 Billion E Rate Proposal, Librarians Are Speaking Out

Marijke Visser, assistant director at the Office of IT Technology at ALA, has been working with the FCC on how to distribute e-rate funds to libraries. Image courtesy of the ALA.

On July 11, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to vote on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s E-Rate program proposal—released July 1—that will redirect $5 billion over the next five years toward high speed WiFi in schools and public libraries. (The E-Rate program is also known as the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund (USF) implemented by the FCC, its purpose to provide “discounted telecommunications, Internet access, and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries, funded by the USF.”)

Wheeler’s most recent $5 billion proposal has raised outcry on several accounts, not the least of which is coming from library directors from cities across the United States who have posted their letters to Wheeler on the FCC’s electronic comment system, according to SLJ sister publication Library Journal:

(More than 100 comments and communications filed with the FCC in recent weeks.)

The majority of libraries and schools depend on e-rate funding for access to the Internet and equipment. According to figures from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, 90 percent of U.S. libraries have used e-rate at some point, and in FY2012 the number of libraries that participate in e-rate stood at 16,536. The letters charge that should the FCC proposal move forward with the plan to award e-rate money according to the square footage of the library, at the rate of $1 per square foot as proposed, then not only do they stand to lose out and be shortchanged, but that the square footage metric is a poor measurement of WiFi usage. Matthew Poland, chief executive officer of the Hartford Public Library in Hartford, Connecticut stated in his letter:

“… I believe that using square footage is unfair to urban libraries, and to our customers who are disproportionately low-income, unemployed, or underemployed. Our libraries total approximately 220,000 square feet and the cost over the last three years of delivering access to digital information is approximately $4 per square foot. In general, urban libraries are more crowded and serve many more customers in smaller spaces than our suburban or rural counterparts…” 

Poland goes on to say that basing e-rate funding on square footage would send money to more “space-abundant, uncrowded suburban libraries, and less money to smaller, crowded urban libraries whose customers have no other practical way to obtain access to the Internet for seeking employment, education, or participation in society.”

He proposes funding at no less than $4 per square foot, which he stated was the cost of Hartford Public Library over the last three years of “delivering access to digital information.” Poland also suggests funding based on the number of daily visitors versus the square footage—at “$150 per average daily visitor (a formula proposed for schools).” And despite Poland’s criticism of the inadequacy of the FCC’s square footage funding model, in an email, he states to SLJ:

“No federal agency provides more dollars for connectivity to schools and libraries than the FCC through E-Rate. Of the $2 billion disbursed annually, public schools receive 98 percent—$1.96 billion—[and] as the former-chairman of the Hartford Public School Board, I know how grateful we are for this funding.  Public libraries receive only 2 percent or $40 million, and they serve 300,000 million people in cities and towns throughout the nation. They are the #1 provider of free access to the Internet everywhere. But as the CEO of our city’s library, they are woefully underfunded, therefore, greatly expanding E-Rate funding is long overdue. Hartford’s library receives about $50,000 in E-Rate funds—hardly enough to serve the clamorous needs of our citizens. In one of the nation’s poorest cities, we are shortchanging our citizens who depend on us for access. In fact we are shortchanging America’s education infrastructure with this imbalance in funding.”

Universal Wi-Fi access has been a topic of national conversation ever since President Obama spoke about it in last year’s State of the Union address and launched his $200 million ConnectEd Initiative unveiled on June 6, 2013, “which will connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years,” according to the White House ConnectEd blog, the FCC “tasked with connecting more than 20 million students in 15,000 schools to this technology over the next two years” (source: Library Journal) has been under the gun to reform its outdated E-Rate program and structure to carry out the initiative. While schools and teachers unions have voiced their own protests over Wheeler’s e-rate reform, like with his proposal to award funding per student to determine the amount of Wi-Fi funding for a school, the question with public libraries appears to be: will public libraries get their due portion of the E-Rate pie?

The American Library Association (ALA) has been working closely with the FCC to come up with an adequate formula for funding distribution, and Marijke Visser, ALA’s assistant head of IT Policy, addressed the charge that the $1-per-square-foot policy would shortchange poor, urban libraries and reward spacious, suburban ones:

“I do not think it is entirely accurate to claim that square footage is a direct correlation to wealth of the county/district. There are small urban neighborhood branches, but usually the main branch is quite large as you can imagine thinking of NYPL or Chicago Public, for example.”

Only time will tell if the distribution of E-Rate wealth will shake out to President Obama’s vision of 99 percent of America’s students connected to high speed Internet—and that’s including in public libraries.

For an update on the vote, go to:

FCC E-Rate Vote to Inject $5 Billion Into Wi-Fi for Schools and Libraries, Passes

For more coverage on E-Rate:

Directors of Several Urban Public Libraries Send Letters to FCC Re: Proposed E-Rate Funding Plan

ALA Urges FCC to Accelerate E-Rate Goals

ALA Hopeful, Excited by White House Push to Overhaul E-Rate Funding

FCC Chairman Proposes E-Rate Modernization To Bring High-Speed Wi-Fi To Every Student And Library

ALA Highlights Benefits of Federal Broadband Funding, Argues that E-Rate Must Be Enhanced to Sustain Progress

IMLS Holds Hearing on the Need for Broadband in Libraries

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun (csun@mediasourceinc.com) is a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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