November 17, 2017

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E-Rate Win for Schools and Libraries: Modernization Order Brings Another $1.5B

Wifi-Erate-winDecember 11 marked a triumphant day for both champions and beneficiaries of high-speed Internet access in all schools and libraries across the United States when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted (3-2) to pass the latest E-Rate Modernization Order. The long-awaited update includes a provision to inject an additional $1.5 billion to the E-Rate funding cap, raising the yearly budget to $3.9 billion.

“ALA has long advocated for a permanent increase to the program and to get $1.5 billion is truly historical,” says Marijke Visser, associate director at the Office of Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association (ALA) in an email. “The program is currently capped at about $2.4 [billion] so adding an additional $1.5 [billion] is a pretty good deal.”

(Read ALA’s press release.)

The vote for the budget increase builds on the momentum of an ongoing updating process begun in 2010 to the 18-year-old E-Rate program, the nation’s largest subsidy program for education technology. As SLJ reported this past July, the FCC recently passed an order to redirect $1 billion annually from funds earmarked for antiquated, nonbroadband services to “category 2” services, which deal with internal connectivity—or Wi-Fi. Another part of the E-Rate program is services that are needed to support connectivity to schools and libraries (and not within the infrastructure), or “category 1” services.

Category 2 (Wi-Fi) funding distribution was heavily debated in the weeks leading up to the FCC’s July vote on the modernization order, as SLJ had covered. The FCC landed on the distribution formula of $2.30 per square foot for libraries, however following protest from urban library leaders and advocates who said the amount was insufficient to meet the needs of the limited and highly trafficked space of urban libraries, the amount that was changed to $5 per square foot for urban libraries in “cities of 250,000 or more,” says Visser. “Libraries in populations less than that are at the $2.30 level. It is based on the Institute of Museum and Library Services locale codes that describe library service areas.”

Click here to read Matt Poland's letter to the FCC in July where he argued for more funds per square foot.

Click here to read Matt Poland’s letter to the FCC in July where he argued for more funds per square foot.

“Public libraries have become the most important free source of Internet connectivity in the nation,” says Matthew Poland, CEO of Hartford (CT) Public Library in an email to SLJ. ”Our customers are increasingly bringing their own devices to do their homework, use online career resources, stay in touch with friends and family, and connect with e-government programs. All of these activities require robust Wi-Fi networks and the E-Rate program will now ensure that libraries have the funds to provide this service.”

The passage of the modernization order and funding cap hike represents a win for advocates from many organizations, including the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL), the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, the Public Library Association, and the Urban Libraries Council, with the ALA at the forefront, pushing for the FCC to offer more affordable high capacity broadband for the majority of libraries and long-term funding for the E-Rate program, says ALA’s December 11 press release.

“The primary issues for libraries really had to do with getting higher speeds to the building rather than within it,” Visser. “This [December 11] order deals with all of that so…we’re thrilled.”

Today, 63 percent of American students in public schools do not have broadband access in the classroom, says an FCC press release. That’s over 40 million students, still a far cry from President Obama’s goal to connect “99 percent of American students to high-speed broadband Internet in their schools and libraries within five years,” a goal he declared in June 2013 with his ConnectED initiative.

Libraries are also behind on the high speed broadband bandwagon. According to the ALA, only two percent of libraries are at the FCC’s 1 gigabit goal, which enables high-speed Internet connections, and two-thirds of all libraries report they want to increase their broadband capacity.

Rural and small libraries must address different hurdles than their urban library counterparts.

“In the town where I live, there isn’t a Starbucks or a bookstore with free Wi-Fi. We have three streetlights and only one place to go to get free Wi-Fi, and that is the public library,” says Kieran Hixon, a board member of ARSL, and technology consultant at Colorado State Library, in an email. “Rural areas, like my hometown, with sparse populations, frequently make it a bad investment for providers of broadband to install the needed infrastructure,” adds Hixon. “In other words, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often do not see a strong enough customer base in rural areas to bother selling us their service, and if they do, they often charge more than in urban areas.”

Libraries in rural areas reported a significantly slower download speed, one-fifth of the average download speed of libraries located in cities, says the University of Maryland’s Digital Inclusion Survey.

“This latest increase will give all rural and small libraries the opportunity to either create, add, or update broadband to their library buildings,” says Hixon. “We can keep up with the demand for high speed broadband in our communities.”

Looking ahead, Hixon expresses a measured joy. “There are hurdles to overcome regarding connectivity and digital inclusion by librarians in tiny and isolated area,” he says. “Providing the proper funding and needed infrastructure is a step in the right direction.”

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“We’re thrilled,” says Marijke Visser, associate director at the Office of Information Technology Policy at ALA. Image courtesy of the ALA

Visser acknowledges that while the FCC made some pretty important changes around increasing broadband capacity for libraries, the reality is that the libraries are far behind where they should be. In particular, rural libraries, though overall about two-thirds of libraries say they want to increase broadband speeds, she says.

However, the library in Hixon’s town won’t have to face it alone. ALA is looking ahead at helping in the how-to process of libraries wanting to access the funds to high-speed broadband.

“Libraries and schools have to apply to get the money,” says Visser, “So our work now is doing lots of education and outreach to libraries so that they are aware of the opportunities on the table. We are working with PLA, COSLA, and ARSL. We also have state E-Rate coordinators who are in charge of education and training in their states and we have an E-Rate task force whose primary job now is going to be to design the best methods to support actual libraries.”

Visser notes there will be a PLA co-hosted webinar in January and a “discussion forum with library leaders and others interested in E-rate” at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. “We know this coming year will be a tough one with so many changes to navigate but the FCC and Universal Service Administrative Company (who administers the program) are both committed to helping as much as they can and of course we will be working with our library partners.

“Providing the proper funding and needed infrastructure is a step in the right direction,” says Hixon. “We strongly encourage all libraries, including those that have never before applied for E-Rate, to do so now.”

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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