Editor's note: This article has been corrected; see below.
WASHINGTON, December 19 – Connected Nation and the American Library Association will receive a $7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a broadband initiative designed to improve internet connections in public libraries, the foundation said Thursday.
The goal is to ensure that all public libraries within seven states – Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia – have broadband connectivity of at least 1.5 Megabits per second (Mbps). Connected Nation will convene broadband summits within each of these “pilot” states.
The states were chosen because they have large populations with individuals living below the poverty line, said Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Gates Foundation.
Despite overwhelming demand for technology services, up to one-third of all public libraries have internet connections too slow to meet the every needs of patrons, according to a recent report compiled by the American Library Association.
In an interview, Nishi said that the 1.5 Mbps speed goal is a minimum, and that the foundation will strive to ensure higher speeds in the seven states. In June, the Federal Communications Commission raised its definition of broadband from internet connections of at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 768 Kbps, or about half the speed that Nishi described as a “floor.”
“We believe that all people in this country should have access to high speed internet and that public libraries are a key institution in delivering this internet access,” said Nishi.
With the deepening recession, librarians are reporting that online services are in high demand for job-seekers.
With home broadband adoption rates leveling off, and with less workers in jobs and able to access the Internet at the office, the library becomes a crucial “third place” for connecting online, she said.
Among public libraries, 73 percent are the only source of free, public internet access in their communities, according to the ALA report, which was also funded by the Gates Foundation.
Nishi and the American Library Association described the grant’s focus on libraries as a key to subsequently enhancing the quality and availability of broadband within the surrounding communities.
“Public libraries can and should provide access to the ever-expanding universe of knowledge, tools, services and resources available on the Internet,” ALA President Jim Rettig said in a statement. “They also act as catalysts for improving internet services for entire communities.”
Similarly, Nishi said that by allowing for “a broader emphasis in ubiquitous deployment, a public library can expose [patrons to] what broadband can afford. In some cases, they can be a demand center” for individuals who may not have considered subscribing to broadband.
Connected Nation, the Kentucky-based non-profit organization that is funded by Bell and cable companies and by state appropriations, has emphasized the importance of “demand creation” in stimulating broadband adoption in Kentucky and in other states. It also provides maps of broadband availability within several states.
“Libraries are often the best point of internet access for people who otherwise could not afford access,” Brian Mefford, CEO of Connected Nation, said in a statement. State and local leaders must “recognize this important community service and commit to supporting local library efforts to ensure access to quality broadband.”
Under the $6,959,771 Gates foundation grant, $6,107,882 will go to Connected Nation and $851,889 will go to the ALA. Nishi said that 85 percent of the $6.1 million for Connected Nation will fund travel expenses for officials to attend the summits.
ALA’s $850,000 will go toward research and expertise in aiding the library agencies in the seven states to develop implementation strategies for faster library broadband connections.
The goal of the summits and of the implementation strategies is to find ways to financially support faster connections through means besides the Gates Foundation.
Hence the summits are designed to collect librarians within the state, state government officials that oversee the libraries, state and local politicians, and local broadband providers.
“One of the messages we want to impart [in the summits] is the role of broadband access, the information and the opportunities [through broadband], and that it is critical for every community to have this access,” said Nishi.
Nishi also said that more libraries need to take advantage of the e-Rate, which is part of a federal universal service fund subsidizing telecommunications services in schools and libraries.
Also as part of its work in preparing for the $6.9 million grant, the Gates Foundation is conducting a census-style survey of the speeds, prices and providers of internet access to all 16,000 public libraries in the country, Nishi said.
Nishi said that the speeds, prices and names of providers will be publicly released. Although major telecommunications carriers have objected in the past to the public disclosure of the ZIP codes in which they offer broadband, Nishi said that providers do not object to making this information public.
“We think that the providers will find this information helpful in terms of seeing this as demand creation,” she said.
The census-style survey is under contract to the Lieberman Research Worldwide, and is expected to be completed by the spring of 2009, said Nishi.
Correction and Clarification:
January 11, 2009 - A Gates Foundation official called BroadbandCensus.com to say that it is 50 percent, and not 85 percent, of the $6.1 million grant to Connected Nation that will fund travel expenses.
With reference to the question of whether telecommunications providers object to making information about the speeds, prices and names of providers publicly available, the official clarified that the Gates Foundation had not asked telecommunications companies whether they object to making the information public. The foundation is simply conducting its census-style survey of internet access to public libraries and releasing the information to the state library boards, which are then expected to publicly disclose this information.
-Drew Clark, Editor, BroadbandCensus.com
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