E-Rate Program Helps Local Libraries Succeed in the Digital Age

January 6, 2014

By Phyllis Jordan

What if there was  a space where every person could access the Internet, where unemployed workers could apply online for jobs or health care and where students without computers at home could download their assignments and do research?

Well, nearly every city has one, and it’s called a library.

Today, an estimated 77 million Americans use library computers or digital services each year, and nearly all libraries provide Internet access. The library is the nation’s number one source for public Internet access, especially for those households that do not have a computer with access at home.  

In 1997, recognizing the importance of internet connectivity to lifelong learning, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the E-rate program to provide schools and libraries with affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections.  

Currently, over $2.2 billion in annual federal assistance is provided to schools and libraries through this program.  And while this amount has grown modestly since E-rate’s inception, it has not kept pace with the explosion of digital content and services that exist only on the Internet.

Connecting libraries to the Internet is of such importance that in some instances, local governments are taking matters into their own hands.  King County, Washington, through their I-Net program, provides Internet services to governmental institutions including cities, libraries and schools.  

Recognizing the importance of Internet access, the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and other groups are urging the federal government to expand and reform the way the E-Rate program delivers financial support for digital connectivity. NLC recently launched a strategic partnership with the ULC and hosted joint sessions at NLC’s 2013 Summit on Your City’s Families in Seattle in November.

“It’s important to remember that an estimated 100 million Americans still have no broadband access, particularly low-income residents,” said Susan Benton, president and CEO of ULC, a membership organization made up of America’s premier public library systems and the organizations that serve them.  Broadband access is integral for a community’s development, and is a focus area of NLC’s infrastructure research program because of the strong impact it has on the way governments deliver services. It can also increase opportunities for economic growth, whether it be through improving the small business or entrepreneurial environment or expanding education via enhanced school and library resources.

Because technology tools such as computers and Internet subscriptions can be cost prohibitive for some households and schools, libraries are many times the only places job-seekers and students can get online.  “For them, the library is a lifeline. Internet access is crucial for working poor populations, who need computers and Wi-Fi to apply for jobs, complete GEDs and take online classes. And let’s not forget students. Many libraries report their busiest hours are between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays,” stated Benton.

The FCC is seeking comments for rule changes and library and school advocates are urging the federal agency to expand the pool of money available for both of these institutions. These advocates, which include many local governments, are recommending reforms that would simplify the application process, provide cost savings and acknowledge the shifting digital landscape.  These funds are for library and public school institutions, not local governments directly.  However, it is crucial for local elected officials to be aware of what federal resources their local government institutions are using, and what opportunities and challenges exist around these resources.

“E-rate has been so essential to helping libraries and schools expand what we can offer.  An educated workforce and strong local economy depends on a strong infrastructure,” said Benton. “Internet access has become a core component of our mission to lead learning in our communities."

To learn more, visit ULC’s website or contact Angela Goodrich. For more information on NLC’s work on what cities are doing to expand broadband access, please visit NLC’s Technology and Communications page.

Phyllis Jordan consults for the Urban Libraries Council on communications and media outreach and is Vice-President of the Hatcher Group.