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.