The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Urban libraries say they’re getting shortchanged in a battle for WiFi funding

The Seattle public library. ( <a href="">lwy</a>  / Flickr)

As far too many of us have learned as a result of the recession, the public library is often the only place where out-of-work Americans can go to apply for jobs and unemployment benefits online.

In many cases, the only way libraries can afford to offer those services is with help from the federal government. Through a public program known as E-Rate, Washington gives institutions a bit of money each year to defray the costs of buying Internet service and equipment. That initiative got a big boost recently, with the Federal Communications Commission announcing plans to spend $1 billion a year for the next two years on better WiFi, amid a broader push to modernize the E-Rate program.

Now the FCC has to decide how to divide up that $2 billion — and libraries are smack in the center of a brewing fight about it. Library directors from five cities, including Seattle, Memphis and Hartford, Conn., have sent letters to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler this week saying that they stand to be shortchanged if the commission moves forward with a plan to tie the money to the square footage of their facilities. Under the proposal, the FCC would give libraries a budget for WiFi funding at a rate of $1 per square foot — which some say isn't nearly enough.

"WiFi costs are not merely a function of the square footage of a room with wireless connectivity," wrote Matthew Poland, chief executive of the public library system in Hartford, Conn. "WiFi performance is a function of users."

Poland argued that other libraries — such as those serving wealthy suburbanites — tend to be bigger. Not only would the proposed formula give more funding to suburban facilities, but those libraries would be taking in money that might be put to better use elsewhere. Inner-city libraries, Poland wrote, serve more users in a tighter space; their patrons tend to be less wealthy and disproportionately unemployed or under-employed. The upshot: It isn't fair for large, rich libraries to get even more money when small, needy libraries might get less.

The FCC has set a floor so that every library, regardless of size, will get at least $6,000 a year from the pool of new money dedicated to WiFi. But libraries like Poland's are asking the FCC either to raise the square-footage rate to $4, or to adopt a formula that pays $150 per visitor per year.

The American Library Association, which has been working with the FCC to craft a formula, says the final dollar figure for the square footage mechanism could still change. An FCC official, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that the discussions are still ongoing and that the agency is evaluating the libraries' proposals. But it's committed to measuring funding by square footage because it's one of the easiest ways to compare otherwise different libraries in different regions.

"From our perspective, square footage is the [formula] that captures how libraries actually design their networks and it's a number that's readily available," said Marijke Visser, the ALA's assistant director for IT policy. Visser added that measuring by visitor numbers may be misleading because libraries report usage in a variety of ways.

Here's a concrete example of how much money is at stake. Libraries in urban Seattle occupy about 633,000 square feet in all, according to Jim Loter, Seattle Public Library's IT director. Under the $1-per-square-foot proposal, that would add up to $633,000 in federal WiFi funding. Increasing the rate to $4 per square foot would bring the figure to more than $2.5 million.

That's a big gap, says Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the FCC and an advocate for urban libraries.

“Suburban libraries are capacious and uncrowded, and people who use them have BMWs and use broadband at home," said Hundt. "If you give them $1 per square foot, they're going to get a lot of money that they don't need. Urban libraries are crammed, crowded and critically important because the patrons don't have Internet at home.”