The first thing that many people did when they found that their home broadband wasn’t adequate was to search for some source of public broadband that would enable them to handle their school or office work. Even in urban areas this wasn’t easy, since most of the places with free broadband, such as coffeeshops were closed and didn’t have the broadband connected to deliver meager broadband for those willing to sit outside.
School officials scrambled and were able in many cases to quickly activate broadband from schools, which in most places have robust broadband. Local government supplemented this with ideas like putting cellular hot spots on school buses and parking them in areas with poor broadband.
I’m sure that one of the first places that those without broadband tried was the local small-town libraries. Unfortunately, a lot of libraries in rural areas suffer from the same poor broadband as everybody else in the area.
The FCC established a goal in 2014 for library broadband in the E-Rate Modernization Order, setting a goal of having at least 100 Mbps broadband to every library serving a community of less than 50,000 people, The goal for libraries serving larger communities was set at a gigabit. Unfortunately, many libraries still don’t have good broadband.
In just the last few months, I’ve been working with rural communities where rural libraries get their broadband from cellular hot spots or slow rural DSL connections. It’s hard to imagine being a broadband hub for a community if a library has a 3 to 5 Mbps broadband connection. Libraries with these slow connections gamely try to share the bandwidth with the public – but it obviously barely works. To rub salt in the wounds, some of these slow connections are incredibly expensive. I talked to a library just a few weeks ago that was spending over $500 per month for a dedicated 5 Mbps broadband connection using a cellular hotspot.
The shame of all of this is that the federal funding is available through the E-Rate and a few other programs to try to get better broadband for libraries. Some communities haven’t gotten this funding because nobody was willing to slog through the bureaucracy and paperwork to make it happen. But in most cases, rural libraries don’t have good broadband because it’s not available in many small rural towns. It would require herculean funding to bring fast broadband to a library in a town where nobody else has broadband.
This is not to say that all rural libraries don’t have good broadband. Some are connected by fiber and have gigabit connections. In many cases these connections are made as part of fiber networks that connect schools or government buildings. These ‘anchor institution’ networks solve the problem of poor broadband in the schools and libraries, but almost always are prohibited from sharing that bandwidth with the homes and businesses in the community.
Of course, there are rural libraries that have good broadband because somebody built a fiber network to connect the whole community. In most cases that means a rural telephone company or telephone cooperative. More recently that might mean an electric cooperative. These organizations bring good broadband to everybody in the community – not just to anchor institutions. Even in these communities the libraries serve a vital role since they can provide WiFi for those that can’t afford to buy the subscription to fiber broadband. Most schools and libraries have found ways to turn the WiFi towards parking lots, and all over rural America there have been daily swarms of cars parked all day where there is public WiFi.
Ultimately, the problems with library broadband are a metaphor for the need for good rural broadband for everybody. Society is not served well when people park all day in a parking lot just to get a meager broadband connection to do school or office work. Folks in rural communities who have suffered through this pandemic are not going to forget it, and local and state politicians better listen to them and help find better broadband solutions.