The Digital Safety Net

Today I am participating in a panel on the topic of “Rural Broadband Access in an Ever-More Connected World.” I will share the stage at the City Summit gathering in Austin with State Representative Donna Howard (D-Austin) and Mark Strama, CEO of Google Fiber. I am very glad to have a “seat at the table” in this forum to be able to make the case for adequate broadband connectivity in libraries.

Libraries are proud to be the digital safety net for the Internet access that all persons need for education, employment opportunity, health information, civic engagement, and personal growth.

As has been widely stated, providing broadband connectivity to all communities in our state is the most important public infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century, easily rivaling the importance of rural electrification 80 years ago. Internet access is not a luxury, it is a fundamental need that supports economic development, education, health services, public safety and citizen engagement.

And where do citizens go if they do not have access at home? The library.

In 62% of U.S. communities with libraries, the library is the only source of free Internet access for those who do not have Internet at home. But people turning to the library for access often find frustratingly slow connections. In Texas, according to TSLAC research, 94% of public libraries fail to meet the FCC standard for recommended access for libraries. Admittedly, the standard of 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps, based on population served, is a high bar, but the majority of our libraries don’t even meet the much lower FCC minimum individual standard. Over 60% of Texas public libraries are below the standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. That 60% represents mostly rural libraries serving approximately 8 million Texans. Arguably the 8 million Texans with the most acute need as they have few other options for Internet access in their communities.

To cite only one issue close to home, TSLAC spends approximately $10 million per year on TexShare and TexQuest databases, which receive over 100 million uses and 37 million downloads each year. But slow Internet speeds hinder the ability of the public to fully utilize this incredibly valuable resource.

The main obstacle is cost. The market rate for high-speed Internet is approximately $3,000 per month per library location in Texas. This is far beyond the budget capability of cash-strapped Texas public libraries. With E-Rate discounts, this figure could be reduced by as much as 90%, but only 23% of Texas public libraries participate in E-Rate (compared to a national rate of about 65%). Why so few? Mainly we believe it is because the application process is so very burdensome.

In this legislative session, TSLAC is asking for $1 million to assist approximately 100 libraries to secure E-Rate discounts totaling an estimate $2.5 million per year. This small investment would yield great results both in real dollars returned to Texas but also in the much greater measure of Texans’ access to the online information they need to be productive, active, informed citizens.

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