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Expanding Broadband Access: The Work Continues

September 21, 2015

September 21, 2015

By Mary Alice Ball
Senior Library Program Officer, IMLS

Library and museum professionals, as well as our colleagues in other community anchor institutions, have been elated to see the progress made in the past six years in expanding broadband access. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, grant and loan programs from the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture resulted in a dramatic increase in broadband deployment and in adoption programs. Libraries have transformed their facilities, programs, and services to meet the changing needs of their communities. Museums and libraries have digitized their collections to make them available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. They’ve supported people as they learned how to apply for a job using a computer for the first time and developed digital literacy classes to help the public transition to this new online environment.

Most library visitors can take these skills home and use them on their personal computers, but due to geographic location or individual circumstance, not everyone is that fortunate. These are the adults who line up at the door in the morning, or the children and parents who sit in the parking lot at night, using the free Wi-Fi network to complete a homework assignment.

President Obama recognized that even in 2015 too many Americans still cannot take advantage of the many benefits offered by broadband. That is the reason he launched the Broadband Opportunity Council in March, bringing together representatives from nineteen Federal agencies. IMLS was excited to be included in this initiative. For five intense months, agency teams examined programs and policies and solicited feedback from stakeholders in an effort to bring broadband to the most underserved communities.

Our agency is particularly interested in supporting traditionally underserved communities that too often lack high-speed broadband connections. IMLS is funding a new initiative by Internet2 U.S. UCAN and its many partners (including the Southern California Tribal Digital Village, and the Pacific Northwest Gigapop, KanREN, OneNet, Network Nebraska research and education networks) to develop a network assessment toolkit and technical assistance program for rural and tribal libraries. These libraries provide critical public access to computers and the Internet with support and training from professionals, but many have inadequate connectivity and Wi-Fi. The toolkit will help libraries configure, modify, and manage their networks. After piloting in 30 rural and tribal communities, an expanded roll-out will be considered.

IMLS has also awarded a grant to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and its partner, Georgia Public Library Service, to develop best practices and expand technical support for E-rate-funded public library Wi-Fi and connectivity expansions. The technical assistance program will support libraries in assessing connectivity needs, procuring efficient and competitive broadband services, and completing E-rate applications. This initiative will be implemented in partnership with the American Library Association’s E-rate Task Force to ensure that that library information services and free public access points are available to all.

In parallel, IMLS recently coordinated a Digital Inclusion Summit with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums to continue the recommendations from its report, Digital Inclusion in Native Communities:  The Role of Tribal Libraries. In the next year the association will work with the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies to support a larger summit on broadband in Native Nations.

These are just a few of the many initiatives included in the report and recommendations made to the President by the Broadband Opportunity Council. IMLS is proud to be a member and we look forward to working with our partner agencies to continue advancing the President’s agenda in the months ahead. 

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program