Connect with us

Broadband's Impact

Armed With Broadband, Libraries Are Resuscitating Communities Ravaged by COVID-19

Published

on

Photo of Library Director Matt DeLaney courtesy Millinocket Memorial Library

May 27, 2020 — What’s the role of a library in a time of crisis? Truthfully, I had no idea. Probably none, I would have thought.

Libraries to this 20-something tech reporter represented a societal relic. A cultural residue of older solutions to problems. One that has been preserved either for the whims of researchers who wear half-moon glasses, or for nostalgia.

No offense to Melvil Dewey, but what does his system of decimals have on the algorithmic horsepower of the Google search engine?

After interviewing several heads of libraries, I found what I had been missing. Libraries are still around because they show the will to stay alive. Important to this life force is the fact that many libraries adapt. They do so in order to continue to be the repository of mankind’s knowledge — and a bridge to the future while fully rooted in the community, without ceding that future to a startup’s server farm in a country with the cheapest land prices.

What can libraries do?

Turns out, libraries can do a lot. Libraries promise to keep citizens competitive and informed, to help combat the worst excesses of the information age, but also to keep pace with it at a safe distance.

“Who says that who doesn’t want your wallet, or your soul?” Don Means, CEO of the Gigabit Libraries Network, said in an interview with Broadband Breakfast. Gigabit Libraries connects innovative libraries to one another and offers grants so that they may update their technology and connect their residents to high-speed broadband.

Screenshot of Don Means in March 2020 from a Gigabit Libraries Network webcast. Broadband Breakfast is Media Sponsor of the series.

Means boasted of the many unexpected ways in which libraries are useful. In today’s economy, “you can’t apply to a job at McDonald’s without going online,” Means said, putting emphasis on “can’t.”

Libraries also serve as sanctuaries for people without broadband, who lack important resources and have nowhere else to go. Means emphasized the universal nature of libraries. For example, undocumented immigrants trust librarians, Means told me.

It goes further than that: Refugees from both law and from natural disasters can find a sanctuary in libraries. During Hurricane Katrina, “people took generators and access points to the library” to create broadband, Means said. “Charlie Manson could walk into a library and they’d serve him,” Means added, with unqualified pride.

But Means is convinced that broadband and youth are critical to the library system’s survival. “I refuse to roll over,” Means said of the resistance he faced in modernizing some libraries.

If kids don’t get high-quality broadband in their communities, he said, “then the kids will leave.” He also noted that there has been a 50 percent increase in demand of e-books from libraries during COVID-19. Libraries have been more than happy to oblige.

Libraries are ‘incredibly committed’ to the communities in ‘flyover country,’ says Deb Fallows

Americans are generally unaware of “how incredibly committed libraries are to their mission of serving the people,” said Deb Fallows, co-author of Our Towns.

Fallows and her husband Jim Fallows visited dozens of towns in a single-engine prop airplane to research the book. Fittingly, those towns are often referred to as “flyover country”— small parts of rural America that often lack a reliable broadband connection.

Photo of Deb Fallows by Aaron Salcido courtesy Zócalo Public Square

Along the way, she connected with many of the country’s librarians and heard their stories. She recounted to me that in the town of Ajo, Arizona and Eastport, Maine, the latter of which has a population of 2,000, the public library is the only location in town that offers a wireless connection. Libraries in less remote towns she visited provide connectivity when residents “can’t afford a $4 latte” at the nearest cup-runneth-over-with-broadband coffee shop.

The libraries she visited provided a boon of vetted information about the coronavirus and what people can do to keep their families safe. “Libraries have said, ‘Here’s everything you need to know about this virus,’” Fallows told me. “Nothing’s going to stop them, not even the virus.”

The ‘one-horse town’ of Millinocket, Maine, gets its library back

Matt DeLaney, custodian of the Millinocket Memorial Library in Maine, remembered when he first arrived in the “one-horse town” that was to be his new home. Millinocket was economically decimated from the closing of its flagship paper mill in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Millinocket’s population shrank from 8,000 to 4,000, and the town’s library folded not long thereafter.

Those who chose to remain were hardened by the ensuing years of poverty and became weary of outsiders, DeLaney said.

In 2016, when DeLaney was hired to revive the library, he found himself amidst a “little bit of a fractured community,” and that the residents, while kind, were “somewhat distrustful.”

Photo of Millinocket, Maine by David Wilson used with permission

He spared no time in reviving the library he was hired to lead. His first order of business? Apply for a grant to update the library’s handful of 10-year old computers with new computers, servers and routers.

He also worked with Gigabit Libraries to access TV “white space,” or the unused radio frequency spectrum near the television band, to bring better-quality broadband to the townspeople. The grant was quickly approved, and for the first time in years, money began flowing back into Millinocket.

“The fact that someone outside of Millinocket believed in Millinocket” excited residents and showed them the potential of what a library could be, said DeLaney.

“It was kind of a real underdog story,” said DeLaney, not immodestly. He was later was awarded Maine Librarian of the year for his efforts. Upon receiving the phone call about the award, he said, “at first I thought it was a scam.” He chose to accept the honor after verifying its legitimacy.

DeLaney’s many accomplishments include constructing a new $2 million building in Millinocket. The opening of the building was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

DeLaney’s efforts go far beyond the grant and the new building, which he mentioned to me almost as an afterthought. Prior to the pandemic, the library’s most popular service was lending out mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks.

While the physical library was temporarily closed due to COVID-19, DeLaney trained 35 community volunteers to deliver food and medicine to the townspeople. He and his crew raised $7,500 for relief fund to help feed the townspeople who had been laid off. He reconfigured the library’s hotspots to allow for 24/7 Wi-Fi in the parking lot.

He directed trainers to be “phone buddies” for the more vulnerable residents by teaching them how to work Instacart, as well as offering other Zoom classes and story time. All of these were coordinated through the library’s GoFundMe-like website, MobilizeKatahdin.org.

Libraries in other small towns also helping people ‘thrive at home’

The success story of the Millinocket library and its new effectiveness in the age of coronavirus is not an isolated incident in one remote town.

Stephen Houser, head of the Twin Lakes Library System in Georgia, also moved his library’s services online. Its new “thrive at home” program now offers community members coping with quarantines such digital opportunities as book clubs, mixology, yoga, gardening and story time.

Photo of Stephen Houser courtesy GeorgiaForward

The library also hosts a school lunch program, which has been so successful that Houser described “lines snaking through our parking lots and spilling onto the streets.”

Libraries, Means told me, provide an interface between the abstract concept of broadband and one’s communications experience at home. “We’re never doing things that are irrelevant.”

Editor’s Note: Broadband Breakfast is proud to be Media Sponsor of the Gigabit Libraries Network webinar series, “What is a Library If the Building is Closed?” To attend the event on May 29, 2020, at 11 a.m. ET, please register at “Libraries in Response: Reopening strategies in Ohio und Deutschland.” 

Broadband's Impact

Julio Fuentes: Access Delayed Was Access Denied to the Poorest Americans

Big Telecom companies caused months and months of delays in the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Remember when millions of students in dense urban areas and less-populated rural areas weren’t dependent on home broadband access so they could attend school?

Remember when we didn’t need telehealth appointments, and broadband access in urban and outlying areas was an issue that could be dealt with another day?

Remember when the capability to work remotely in underserved communities wasn’t the difference between keeping a job and losing it?

Not anymore.

Education. Health care. Employment. The COVID-19 pandemic affected them all, and taking care of a family in every respect required broadband access and technology to get through large stretches of the pandemic.

You’d think the Federal Communications Commission and its then-acting chairwoman would have pulled out all the stops to make sure that this type of service was available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible — especially when there’s a targeted federally funded program for that important purpose.

Alas, by all appearances, some Big Telecom companies threw their weight around and caused months and months of delays, denying this life-changing access to the people who needed it most — at the time they needed it most.

The program in question is the federally funded Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The EBB offered eligible households — often the poorest Americans — a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service, and those households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop or other computer if they contribute just $10 to the purchase. Huge value and benefits for technology that should no longer be the privilege of only those with resources.

Seems fairly straightforward, right?

It should have been. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel slammed on the brakes. Why? It turns out that Big Telecom giants wanted more time to get ready to grab a piece of the action — a lot more time. While the program was ready to go in February, it didn’t actually launch until several months later.

That’s months of unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t providers who were waiting. It was Americans in underserved and rural areas, desperate for a connection to the world.

Here are some numbers for Rosenworcel to consider:

  • As recently as March, 58% of white elementary students were enrolled for full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latino students, and 18% of Asian peers were able to attend school in person.
  • Greater portions of families of color and low-income families reportedly fell out of contact with their children’s schools during the pandemic. In one national survey in spring 2020, nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families — in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
  • In fall 2020, only 61% of households with income under $25,000 reported that the internet was “always available” for their children to use for educational purposes; this share was 86% among households with incomes above $75,000.

And all of these numbers cut across other key issues such as health care and maintaining employment.

Access delayed was access denied to the poorest, most isolated Americans during the worst pandemic in generations.

Allowing Big Telecom companies to get their ducks in a row (and soak up as many federal dollars as possible) left poor and rural Americans with no options, for months. Who knows how many children went without school instruction? Or how many illnesses went undiagnosed? Or how many jobs were terminated?

This delay was appalling, and Chairwoman Rosenworcel should have to answer for her actions to the Senate Commerce Committee as it considers her nomination for another term as commissioner. Rather than expedite important help to people who needed it most, she led the agency’s delay — for the benefit of giant providers, not the public.

Hopefully, the committee moves with more dispatch than she did in considering her actual fitness to be FCC chairwoman for another term.

Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Education

Texas High School Students Enter the Fight for Better Connectivity

Students in a Houston-area school district hosted a panel on connecting schools and libraries as part of a national event on bridging the digital divide.

Published

on

John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – Generation Z students are making their mark at a Houston-area school district by adding broadband access to the list of issues they are actively working on.

The high school students in the Fort Bend Independent School District organized a panel conversation on internet access in education as part of Connected Nation’s national event titled “20 Years of Connecting the Nation,” and were able to host some high-profile guests in the world of telecommunications.

The November 17 panel included John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, Chris Martinez, division director of information technology for the Harris County Public Library, Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, and Meredith Watassek, director of career and technical education for Fort Bend ISD.

Nine percent of residents in Harris County, where Houston is located, reports that they do not have a connected device at home and 18 percent say they do not have access to an internet connection. These gaps in access are the focus of the panelists’ digital equity efforts.

With Windhausen and Martinez present on the panel, a key point of discussion was the importance of helping libraries to act as anchor institutions – institutions which help enable universal broadband access.

Watassek pointed out that she has been helping oversee distance learning in Fort Bend ISD for six years, starting such a program to enable teachers to teach students in several of the district’s buildings without having to drive to each one, and has seen that with time and learned experience it is possible to work through distance learning logistical issues that school districts around the nation are currently facing.

Continue Reading

Broadband's Impact

New York City Broadband Housing Initiative Gets First Completed Project

The initiative is part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan.

Published

on

BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird speaks at a press conference at Melrose Housing. Photo provided by BlocPower.

November 30, 2021 – BlocPower, Metro IAF, People’s Choice Communications, and pillars in the Bronx community in New York City gathered Monday at the Melrose Housing development to celebrate the first of five New York City Housing Authority community Wi-Fi projects completed by BlocPower.

Community members and other stakeholders were welcomed by Rev. Sean McGillicuddy, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and leader at Metro IAF. “As the pandemic has shown us, internet is not just a luxury, it is a necessity,” he said. “We have internet now in Melrose Housing and we are celebrating with hundreds of Immaculate Conception Church parishioners.”

The build out to Melrose Housing and Courtland Avenue was part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan, with a goal of connecting 600,000 additional New Yorkers considered underserved. A third of those underserved people are residents in New York City Housing Authority communities.

With these two projects completed, Melrose and Courtland Housing can now provide internet to their more than 2,500 residents spread across 1,200 apartments and ten buildings.

“We are incredibly excited today to bring this much-needed, low-cost wi-fi alternative to Melrose and Courtlandt Avenue,” said BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird. “What began as the by-product of our efforts to convert New York City’s aging, urban buildings into smarter, cleaner more eco-friendly ones, installing community-owned urban wi-fi networks has now become an important part of BlocPower’s expanded mandate – to help close the digital divide in America’s underserved communities.”

P.C.C. technicians were able to install antennas on roofs and wi-fi nodes on each floor. To have a sufficient workforce to accomplish this task, BlocPower trained local New Yorkers through the company’s “Pathways: Civilian Climate Corps” program.

Going forward, P.C.C. will be responsible for maintaining, billing, and customer service. Melrose and Courtland residents will, in turn, elect a board to represent them in matters of data governance, use of proceeds, and quality of service issues.

Continue Reading

Recent

Signup for Broadband Breakfast

Get twice-weekly Breakfast Media news alerts.
* = required field

Trending