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FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Gives the Broadband Scoreboard at SHLB: FCC Maps-0, Libraries-1

Drew Clark

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Photo of Geoffrey Starks, with Larry Irving in the background, by Drew Clark

ARLINGTON, Virginia, October 17, 2019 – Federal Communication Commissioner Geoffrey Starks summarized his keynote message to the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition’s #AnchorNets2019 with a simple scoreboard: FCC’s broadband maps-0, Libraries as anchor institutions serving communities-1.

After first dumping on the agency’s process of collecting, compiling and publishing broadband data, Starks provided paeans to the role that libraries have and continue to play in the enlightenment and edification of America.

Specifically, he underscored four benefits that libraries play in universal access, as a place for learning, in helping people bounce rise up from setbacks, and serving as "second responders" for communities struck by tragedy.

First is the role that libraries play in universal access. “Libraries are still, as Andrew Carnegie said, ‘Palaces for the People.’ The Municipal Library in Columbus Ohio has three words carved in granite above its front door – the words are: ‘Open To All.’

Today, this goes far beyond access the Dewey decimal system. Libraries are providing broadband access through their Wi-Fi signals, as well as by lending connectivity when patrons check out hot spots that they can take home.

Second, libraries play a crucial role as a place for children, teens and adults to learn, read and – for newly-arrived refugees – learn how to establish a place for themselves and their families in America. He highlighted the “Tech Goes Program” in the Boston Public Library , a 15-week course that teaches computer and internet skills, helps people purchase low-cost internet subscription services, and helps them acquire the hardware they need to access the internet at home.

Third is the role that libraries play in getting people who have been thrown out of work back on their feet by obtaining jobs. “This is an important trend and it’s not an exception or a corner case,” said Sparks. Fully 73 percent of public libraries provide help with job applications and interviewing skills and 68 percent have programs to help library customers use electronic search tools to find job openings. More than a third offer work spaces for mobile workers.

Fourth, libraries are increasingly also playing a role as so-called “second responders” in communities in the wake of disaster and disruption.

Sparks cited the Far Rockaway branch of the Queens Library’s continued programming of it’s “children’s hour” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy – even though it had no heat or power, or the Orlando library’s hosting an art gallery after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in 2016.

“The librarians hoped to give children a sense of normalcy during a time when nearly everything in the community was disrupted,” he said.

Dumping on the FCC's process of collecting and publishing broadband data

Starks offered as much criticism of the FCC’s broadband mapping program as he offered praise of libraries and their role in addressing digital divides. He said that the agency’s maps overstate service availability because of the way it shows an entire census block as “served” only if one provider says that it provides service on the block.

He also said that the agency’s maps “depict carrier-reported data without subjecting it to audits, or, in certain cases, even basics sanity checks.”

He cited the agency’s recently-released broadband deployment report as a “glaring demonstration of this problem. The first draft of this Report was based on data that overstated high speed broadband connections by more than 62 million – that’s more than the populations of Washington, Texas, Michigan, and Illinois put together. This is troubling because the FCC never caught the error, an outside party did.”

Additionally, Starks conducted a “fireside chat” with Larry Irving, the former administrator of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Clinton administration, and the man credited with coining the term “digital divide.”

In the conversation with Irving, Starks cited three additional reasons why it was imperative for the federal government to take steps to address the digital divide: Unless the digital divide is ameliorated, individuals lacking access to good-quality broadband will increasingly suffer deprivations in their Individual dignity, their economic development opportunities – including being able to engage in activities like telework – and civic engagement.

The full text of Stark's formal speech is available online. Broadband Breakfast is media sponsor of SHLB's #AnchorNets2019 conference.

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