Though broadband Internet access has become more common in U.S. households during the past decade, the digital divide has not yet been bridged. In fact, challenges now loom larger than ever for households without broadband, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Chief Librarian for the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) during his opening remarks at the “Libraries and Broadband: Urgency and Impact,” public hearing hosted by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on April 17. According to IMLS estimates, about 100 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed Internet at home, while 19 million don’t have any Internet access at home.
“I have to admit, about seven or eight years ago, I started to get kind of tired of this phrase ‘the digital divide,’” Reyes-Gavilan said. “My feeling was that this issue was increasingly less about [libraries] bridging the digital divide and more about bridging the digital skills divide. In other words, it was less about providing access, and more about providing the literacy necessary once access was obtained. I’ll also admit that I was wrong.”
For example, he noted that seven or eight years ago, it was still possible to apply for most jobs without going online, adding that the same could be said of applying for health insurance, taking the high school equivalency exam, or even communicating with staff and teachers at a child’s school. But today, businesses and government institutions regularly deploy services with the expectation that users will have a fast, reliable Internet connection via which they can use those services.
Millions of U.S. households are being left behind during this period of transition, but “public libraries remain the very best option for leveling the playing field,” said Reyes-Gavilan. “I know this because of the incredible success the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) has had across the country, here, and at my previous job at the Brooklyn Public Library… making great strides [in] not only improving the infrastructure to support public computing, but addressing that digital skills divide as well. But BTOP is over, and many of us are wondering how do we build on the incredible success of that program, and where is the additional funding [to do so] going to come from?”
Moment of Truth
This viewpoint, and these concerns, were echoed by speakers and panelists throughout the two-and-a-half hour hearing, held at DCPL’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The hearing marked the first time that IMLS has exercised its statutory authority to hold public hearings in order to advise U.S. President Barack Obama, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding the state of U.S. libraries and museums. This authority was granted during the 2010 reauthorization of the Museum and Library Services Act, according to IMLS Director Susan Hildreth.
“We chose this moment to use this new authority because this is a moment full of potential,” Hildreth said, noting that several key agencies are working to address the need to improve public access to broadband.
Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan recommended that community “anchor institutions,” including libraries, have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit-per-second broadband, Hildreth said. In March, the agency demonstrated its ongoing awareness of the need for broadband access in libraries, recommending a modernization of the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, more commonly known as E-Rate, beginning in 2015. If adopted, changes would include the restoration of discounts for library and school broadband connectivity, and a one-time “targeted surge” of funding support for libraries and schools that are lagging behind in such connectivity. IMLS last week published data indicating that 90 percent of U.S. public libraries had used the E-Rate program.
Viewed together, the recent BTOP program, the FCC’s advocacy for E-Rate, and President Obama’s new ConnectED initiative “demonstrate a national commitment and sense of urgency around high-speed Internet delivery and the opportunity for innovation that access provides for our communities,” Hildreth said.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also been a staunch advocate and supporter of public Internet access via libraries for almost two decades, and continues to support libraries’ efforts as broadband becomes more ubiquitous.
“In 1997, the Foundation set an ambitious goal: if you can reach a public library, you can reach the Internet,” said Senior Program Officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Chris Jowaisas. At the time, only about 25 percent of U.S. libraries offered Internet access. However, “by 2004, that goal was met. After investing $240 million the [foundation’s] U.S. Libraries Program, in conjunction with partners at the federal, state, and local level, helped to connect 99 percent of all U.S. public libraries to the Internet.”
While the original goal of the foundation has been met, “it is time to turn our attention to a new vision, ensuring that people have access to all of the opportunities that technology has to offer, and that the opportunity divide does not increase,” Jowaisas said.
The foundation believes that libraries continue to be a key component of that new vision, but Jowaisas acknowledged that the field continues to face significant challenges. Sixty-five percent of public libraries don’t have enough public computers to meet demand, and 41 percent report that their Internet speeds are insufficient. Meanwhile, public libraries continue to work with decreased or inadequate budgets, he said. In 2012, more than 40 percent of states reported that funding for libraries had been decreased three years in a row, even as demand for digital literacy services and technology access at libraries has continued to grow.
“To be in a position to accomplish this vision, public libraries must have the bandwidth to provide such services in an efficient, effective manner,” Jowaisas said.
Bridging the Divide
Stating that “the equalizer in America is education,” National League of Cities Executive Director Clarence Anthony argued at the hearing that access to technology, including broadband, has become fundamentally entwined with modern education.
“Digital literacy is no longer a choice in American cities,” he said. “High-speed Internet is essential for Americans to do everything, as we’ve heard, from finding work to gaining access to health coverage. Most of all, we must recognize that it is important, that if we’re going to bridge the real economic and educational opportunities in America, people have to have access to the Internet and computers.”
In his closing remarks, former FCC Chairman, E-Rate architect, and current CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital Reed Hundt, called for the library community to “step up our game…. We need to fight more fiercely, and we need to understand that this game is definitely worth the candle. It is critical that everyone understands the political realities that face [current FCC] Chairman [Thomas] Wheeler, and that face the FCC…. It is critical that we all understand that this is a country of private wealth and public poverty. This is a country where to stand for the proposition that there should be public access to anything is to take a stand in a long-running battle of ideas.”
Acknowledging that the idea of free access to broadband is an idea that does face ideological opposition, he said, libraries should clarify their position by, for example, defining the meaning of adequate access.
“It’s the things you have all heard over the past several hours,” he said. “It’s being able to download a job application and fill it out. It’s being able to go online and take a course. Being able to enroll at code.org and spend an hour a day learning to code…. 30 million Americans every single year go to a public library for free [Internet] access in order to improve their careers. That’s one tenth of the [U.S.] population. And, it’s not the same people every year. Over the course of three or four years, the majority of adult Americans go to the library to try to get a job or to improve the job they have. This is the importance of public access.”
In addition to Reyes-Gavilan, Hildreth, Jowaisas, Anthony, and Hundt, presenters included FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler; National Telecommunications and Information Administration Chief of Staff Thomas Power; National Museum and Library Services Board members Christie Pearson Brandau, Charles Benton, Winston Tabb, and Carla Hayden; Research Director for the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute Miriam Jorgensen; technology policy consultant John Horrigan; Gary Wasdin, Executive Director for the Omaha Public Library System; Eric Frederick, Executive Director for Connect Michigan; and Maine State Librarian Linda Lord.
A complete video of the hearing is available from C-Span here.