Public Libraries

Libraries of the Digital Future

December 11, 2014  • Reed Hundt, Guest Blogger

This morning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vastly expanded and re-defined the purpose of the E-Rate — the name of the funding program used by the FCC to guarantee that every student and teacher in every classroom and every user of every library can enjoy free Internet access with the reliability and speed available to businesses and residential consumers.

The FCC increased five-year spending from $12 billion to more than $20 billion. This increase was long overdue. Even as the entire society and economy has come to depend on broadband access, the FCC has not raised its E-Rate funding since the Clinton Administration.

Special attention for libraries under the E-Rate got a rocket boost at the Aspen Institute Dialogue on the Future of Libraries, convened in Aspen, CO, in August 2013. After a year and a half of thought, study, and action, the result is that the FCC has approximately tripled the amount of funding for free Internet access for desktop computers and any mobile device brought into public libraries.

If libraries take advantage of the new funding, which exceeds $1 billion over five years, they will bolster their role as the number one free public access point for the Internet in civic society. For after-school children, seniors, people on tight budgets, Americans with and without citizenship — in short, for everyone in our country — libraries now can provide robust, high-speed, safe, reliable access to the digital world.

The largest library systems, those that serve more than two-thirds of all library patrons, have been awarded an enhanced funding level for wireless access. This bump up reflects the importance of library Wi-Fi networks for the millions of Americans who bring their own smartphones, tablets, and notebooks to libraries to get unlimited high speed Internet access. The Urban Libraries Council, the nonprofit that the law firm of Skadden, Arps and I represented pro bono at the FCC, is especially delighted that the FCC carved out this bonus funding opportunity.

The libraries of America will need to rise to the occasion presented by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his colleagues. They will need to adopt the most efficient contracting processes. They need to act on a vision of connection among all library and school buildings. They will want to expedite the great transition from analog book lending to digital information creation and sharing. They must find local and state government leaders to give them the matching grants required by the FCC.

But the FCC’s bold, far-sighted reform beckons libraries, as well as schools, into a major step toward creating digital opportunity equally available to everyone in society.

Many thanks to the Aspen Institute for instigating this conversation two summers ago; many kudos to all who have pursued the cause since then.

Reed Hundt is a member of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries Working Group. Hundt oversaw the creation of the E-rate program during his tenure as chairman of the FCC from 1993-1997.