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Broadband's Impact

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



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,

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.” 

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Broadband's Impact

Josephine Bernson: The Customer Experience is About More Than Fiber

‘Listen to the customer’ is a fundamental pillar in gaining a satisfied customer.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Josephine Bernson, Chief Revenue Officer at Great Plains Communications.

Customer experience and the digital customer experience are what makes businesses today stand apart from competitors. In our connected world, it means delivering products and services via high-speed internet, provided by a network that’s reliable and scalable according to rising bandwidth demand.

Yet, we must keep in mind the other component of a first-rate customer experience: customer service excellence.

Customer service excellence, from the beginning

How does a fiber provider successfully work with the customers and the community from the very beginning? And, continue to provide exceptional customer service each day thereafter?

It begins with listening.Listen to the customer” is a fundamental pillar in gaining a satisfied customer, whether it’s meeting with business executives, community leaders or residents. What are they hoping to achieve with their network, short-term and long-term? Any concerns that should be addressed?

Respond with solutions that meet their needs.  Personalization is better than a one-size-fits-all approach. Each customer has different needs and unique bandwidth specifications that should be taken into consideration. For example, the ability to adjust availability to accommodate peak work hours for a financial institution or local government complex or the flexibility needed for a local business that serves an online global market.

Get to know your customers. Focus on getting to know your customers through participating in local events and spending time in the community. Teams that live and work in same community they serve care about providing their neighbors with high-quality products and superior service. Valuable feedback comes from customers who directly interact with local employees immersed in the community.

Timely and convenient customer service options. If there’s a problem, how can customers contact you for a resolution? Does the customer service center or 24/7 operations center always have agents available? Are there easily accessible online resources equipped to handle common questions? Automation is a big trend in CX. While we enjoy our personal relationships with our customers, we also leverage technology for self-service tools. It’s important to enable customers to do business in whichever manner works best for them.

Happy employees for a happy customer experience

Happy employees have long been credited with increased productivity and better service for customers. Great Plains Communications’ culture has always been to attract, train and retain workers from the areas it serves.

Customer service representative Marisa Benham has been with Great Plains Communications for 15 years. “I’ve always been a people person so I really love talking to people! I love helping them figure out what services they want and helping them if they have an issue with their account.”

As for the GPC team itself, she says, “The biggest thing I love about our team is that even though we’re a large company, I feel like we are still trying to get that small company family feel.  I really love that about Great Plains as well.”

For any business to survive for a long period it must continually evolve. Great Plains Communications is a 113-year-old company serving nearly 200 Midwestern communities.  As a leading digital telecommunications leader, our core focus remains the same: customer service excellence. We believe in our high-performing network and high-performing people.

Customer loyalty depends on the customer experience, but it must be earned. It’s more than state-of-the-art technologies. It’s the people behind the innovation. It’s the teams that deliver and support the technology that make all the difference.

Josephine Bernson is the chief revenue officer at Great Plains Communications. This piece is exclusive to BroadbandBreakfast.

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

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Digital Inclusion

Sean Gonsalves: National Digital Inclusion Alliance Hosts Largest Net Inclusion Gathering

NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer zeroed in on the need for good data.



Selfie of NDIA Executive Director Angela Seifer and Net Inclusions audience from Twitter

With nearly 1,000 in attendance at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in downtown San Antonio for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) marquee gathering, those on the front lines of bridging the digital divide across the nation came to the three-day conference (Feb 28  to March 2) to network, share lessons, best-practices, and learn from experts as the largest ever federal investment in expanding broadband access is heading to state broadband offices this summer.

Mayor addresses attendees, acknowledges open secret of segregation

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg welcomed attendees, noting how his city was a fitting venue for the event.

“It’s no secret San Antonio is one of the most socio-economically segregated cities in the United States,” he said. “And that’s why we have zeroed-in on equity – in our budget, in who gets invited to the table.”

DeAnne Cuellar with Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Nirenberg congratulated NDIA for its work and the attendance record set by this year’s gathering. He also singled out our own outreach coordinator and San Antonio resident DeAnne Cuellar, not only lauding her work with ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks team but for her role in bringing city officials together with Older Adults Technology Services as the city commits to connecting 100,000 older adults in the city.

(ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks team, which has long worked with NDIA participated conducted a workshop, participated in several panels discussions, and hosted a special Connect This! live stream at a social mixer at The Friendly Spot Icehouse.)

“Broadband is a basic human right and is a public utility. That’s why digital inclusion is a pillar of our recovery program,” Nirenberg said, noting how that is reflected in line items in the city’s budget.

Mayor Nirenberg also spoke candidly about injustices that had been baked-in to city and state policies in the past and, whether intentional or not, excluded vulnerable communities across the city, putting them at a socio-economic disadvantage. He said that closing the digital divide was central to correcting those injustices.

He concluded his welcoming remarks encouraging attendees to “use technology to live, learn, work and thrive.”

Texas broadband office announces new network funding opportunity

Also on hand for the conference was Greg Conte, Director of the Texas Broadband Development Office. Conte announced a Notice of Funding Opportunity for $120 million in grants for the construction of new high-speed Internet infrastructure across the Lone Star State.

As projects are funded to build new infrastructure, the state can’t assume people will automatically subscribe for Internet service, as efforts to tackle affordability and adoption are equally important undertakings.

“We want to make sure communities can get online and use it,” he said. “We ask all Texans to help in this process.”

He also briefly touched on something numerous other state broadband offices are in the process of doing: beefing up staff as each state is set to receive an historic amount of federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s BEAD program.

Conte was a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast last summer in which he discussed the challenges of staffing up his office and addressing the dearth of data about precisely where broadband is and isn’t available across the state.

Engaging other sectors in the work of advocating for more ACP funding

Batting clean-up was NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer, who first zeroed in on the need for good data that shows and measures how local digital equity programs are working, and how those efforts can be improved.

Angela Siefer speaking at Net Inclusion

And while quality robust data is vital, she said, it is also worth thinking about who benefits from expanded broadband access (beyond individual end-users) and how data and stories about digital inclusion initiatives can be used to engage industries and sectors of society who may not see bridging the digital divide as an urgent concern.

That includes the necessity of getting more than just Internet service providers at the table. Buy-in from healthcare providers, educational leaders, captains of retail and commerce, as well as transportation planners and housing officials should be engaged in helping to make broadband available especially for residents who struggle with affordability.

Specifically as it relates to commerce, Siefer noted, “the savings that can come from conducting certain business online can be invested into access.”

Siefer also emphasized the value of digital equity advocates sharing the stories they encounter of the lives impacted by their work with those who may not be tuned into the connectivity crisis that still plagues even such a technologically-sophisticated nation as the U.S.

Lastly, Siefer reminded the attendees that the federal funding that supports the Affordable Connectivity Program will run in the next year or so without additional appropriation from Congress.

“We need more money for the ACP,” she said, adding that it was important for state and local leaders to be pushing their Congressional representatives to replenish the ACP’s coffers.

“The long term plan is that the Universal Service Fund needs to be fixed but that is going to take time. The ACP will run out of funds before the USF is fixed,” she said.

Before the general assembly dispersed to a variety of focused workshops and breakout groups, Siefer ended with a note of encouragement: “Remember you guys are the heroes. You do the work on the ground. But NDIA has your back.”

Watch the plenary sessions below. Also, stay tuned for our new podcast series Building for Digital Equity, which will debut soon and feature interviews with dozens of frontline digital inclusion practitioners discussing the work they are doing in their local communities.

This article originally appeared on the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks project on March 2, 2023, and is reprinted with permission.

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Digital Inclusion

NTIA Seeks Comment on How to Spend $2.5 Billion in Digital Equity Act

National Telecommunications and Information Administration is seeking comment on how to structure the programs.



Photo of Veneeth Iyengar of ConnectLA

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2023 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Wednesday that it is seeking comment on how to structure the $2.5 billion that the Digital Equity Act provides to promote digital equity and inclusion. 

As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Digital Equity Act consists of two sub-programs, the State Digital Equity Capacity grant and the Digital Equity Competitive grant. Comments will guide how the NTIA will design, regulate, and evaluate criteria for both programs. 

“We need to hear directly from those who are most impacted by the systemic barriers that prevent some from fully utilizing the Internet,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said Wednesday at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s Net Inclusion event in San Antonio. 

See Commerce Secretary Raimondo’s remarks at Net Inclusion:

The request for comment is part of NTIA’s strategy to hear diverse perspectives in implementing its goal to ensure every American has the skills and capacity needed to reap the benefits of the digital economy, stated a press release. 

The $1.44 billion State Digital Equity Capacity grant will fund implementation of state digital equity plans which will strategically plan how to overcome barriers faced by communities seeking to achieve digital equity.  

Simply making investments in broadband builds is not enough, said Veneeth Iyengar, executive director of ConnectLA, speaking at a Brookings Insitution event in December. Bringing digital equity means “driving adoption, digital skills, and doing the kinds of things that we need to do to tackle the digital divide.” 

The $1.25 billion Digital Equity Competitive grant program will fund anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries, and nonprofits, in offering digital inclusion activities that promote internet adoption. 

“Community-anchor institutions have been and are the connective tissue that make delivering high-speed internet access possible,” said Alan Davidson, head of the NTIA at AnchorNets 2022 conference. 

This announcement follows dissent on the definition of digital discrimination. Commenters to the Federal Communications Commission disagree on whether the intent of a provider should be considered when determining if the provider participated in digital discrimination. There has been no response from the FCC. 

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