May 6, 2009

Libraries Seek Federal Money For Hi-Speed Internet

In Delaware County, Pa., public libraries are trying to shift their access to the information super-highway into warp speed.

As more and more patron's express the need for high-bandwidth Internet access, the county has decided to connect eight of its 25 branches to a fiber-optic network.

County officials have stated that they would like to connect the other 17 branches into the high-speed system as well, but the costs involved have been prohibitively high.  According to the county's budget director, getting service to just the first eight libraries cost the county nearly a tenth of its $3 million budget allotted to libraries.

According to the American Library Association, the situation in Delaware County is far from rare and such shortages have prompted the organization to begin lobbying efforts for some $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money to be used exclusively in expanding broadband access in libraries across the country.

The library association is arguing that such grants to libraries would be the way to extend high-speed service to the greatest number of people "“ intoning one of President Obama's stated technological goals for America.

In support of their petition, the organization released statistics showing that almost 60 percent of associated libraries were unable to meet bandwidth demands during peak hours of use.  The same report stated that 70 percent of the libraries claimed to be their community's only free public source of Internet access.

"If the government's goal is to make sure everyone has access to broadband, the most fiscally responsible way to do that is attaching fiber to the libraries," said Emily Sheketoff, head of the association's Washington office.  "By investing under $1 billion, you could hook up every public library in the country at high speed."

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is currently at work creating a set of criteria for evaluating the numerous grant applications that have been flowing in since the announcement of the stimulus package.  The agency's spokesman, Mark Tolbert said that he was not able to comment on the specifics of the criteria, but that they will be released publicly sometime this summer.

In a statement prepared for the media, Tolbert said, "[t]he ALA's opinion is very important and is part of the extensive input we've received from the public on how best to implement the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program."

Still, libraries are not the only applicants asking for funds.  They are competing with telecommunications companies who are trying to expand their networks and are meeting resistance from groups who say that the focus should be on getting high-speed access into people's homes.

"We have a national opportunity to put poor people first when it comes to broadband," said Rey Ramsey, chairman of the non-profit organization One Economy Corp.  "The best way to do that is to provide an avenue that mirrors what middle-income and upper-income people have "“ and that's home access."

Ramsey also noted that libraries and other public facilities are already penciled in to receive $200 million in the stimulus package.  Additionally, the federal E-rate program already supplies public schools and libraries with funds for improving technological infrastructure.

Library advocates have countered, however, with claims that they provide a vital service to low-income communities, particularly now as more and more unemployed citizens are turning to the Internet to search and apply for jobs "“ a pattern that has become increasingly prominent as the recession has begun to permeate all areas of the country.

"Libraries are really anchor institutions in many communities," said John Bertot, lead researcher for the ALA's survey.  "Libraries are continuing to expand online services by making broadband and wireless available"¦but they are running into some constraints."

Those constraints include high costs and a deficiency of trained technical personnel needed to service the faster networks "“ both obstacles that the ALA says it could overcome if granted federal money.


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