By Susan H. Hildreth
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a panel at the New America Foundation that focused on reports from libraries and schools across the country that they do not have necessary broadband speeds and equipment to support the digital learning environment that the public needs today. We talked about both the technological infrastructure (hardware, software, connectivity) and the social infrastructure (trained librarians and teachers, high-quality content) that are needed for truly “connected communities.”
With the President’s ConnectED effort and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s call to modernize the E-rate program, libraries have a unique and urgent opportunity to act. I urge you to take an hour and listen to the webcast of this important discussion.
I was particularly struck by the remarks of former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. He was chairman in 1996 when the E-rate first came into being and he has for a special interest in libraries. He called the E-rate the single largest investment in libraries and schools since the GI Bill. He noted that one-third of Americans do not have access to the Internet. While not diminishing the need for students to have access, he noted the particular needs of adults, especially people who are retired or unemployed.
One of the issues the library community is wrestling with is how to identify a target measure for library connectivity. Libraries report insufficient speeds, but can we know, measure, and report what is needed to get the necessary bandwidth to patrons? Hundt says we need to know how much bandwidth is needed in the library per user at peak hours.
Most of the national dialogue about the E-rate has focused on schools. I believe there is eagerness at the FCC to hear from libraries. At IMLS we will take a leadership role by holding a hearing to get libraries’ experiences on the record. The hearing will be held in mid-April and will focus on the following:
1) The Vision: What happens when we get it right?
2) The Data: What do we know now and what do we need to know?
3) The Stakes: What is at risk if we are not able to meet public needs for connections in communities and in libraries?
Please look for an announcement about the hearing and take the opportunity to join the conversation.