Many digital equity advocates applauded the Federal Communications Commission’s recent clarification explicitly allowing public schools and libraries to let their communities access E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi services while their buildings are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This development will hopefully make public libraries feel more comfortable sharing their E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi access without fearing any penalties from the FCC. And, as Cecelia Kang’s recent New York Times article shows, this development is sorely needed particularly for those reliant on public library parking lot internet access in communities across the U.S.
However, as our research team was reminded in our recent study on the broadband capacity of public libraries across the state of Montana, not all libraries in the U.S. have the broadband capacity required to provide Wi-Fi access regardless of whether their doors are open or closed.
Last year, the Montana State Library invited us to analyze data gathered in 2019 by Saddle Peak Technologies, a consulting company that worked with 115 of Montana’s 117 public libraries to complete the Internet2 Toward Gigabit Libraries Toolkit. The toolkit was created with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (1) to help public and tribal librarians learn about their current broadband infrastructure and internal information technology (IT) environment.
The Montana State Library asked us to use the data that Saddle Peak Technologies collected to help answer a series of questions about libraries’ broadband connectivity and related IT infrastructure, including the following:
- How does public library broadband connectivity and related IT infrastructure in Montana compare with national standards?
- Which public libraries in Montana have the fastest and slowest broadband speeds?
- In which communities is the public library the only source of free Wi-Fi?
In answering the first question, we decided to use the FCC’s E-Rate Modernization Order to determine a national standard for bandwidth targets in all public libraries in the U.S. The order states that public libraries serving up to 50,000 people should have broadband download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and all public libraries serving 50,000 people or more should have broadband download speeds of at least 1 Gbps.
These benchmarks were applied to only 70 of the 115 public libraries in Montana that participated in the Toward Gigabit Libraries Toolkit data collection process because there were issues and inconsistencies with the broadband speeds reported at 45 of the public libraries where data were gathered. In order to ensure confidence in the research findings, our team decided to move ahead with the analysis of these 70 public libraries found in our report. However, our analysis of the related IT infrastructure (i.e., public access computers and Wi-Fi connectivity) included data from all 115 public libraries that participated in toolkit data collection in 2019, which can be found in the final report.
Here is a summary of some of the more startling findings from our analysis of 2019 data:
- Among the three public libraries in Montana that serve more than 50,000 people, only the Billings Public Library – Montana State University Branch was close to reaching the bandwidth target of 1 Gbps.
- For those libraries serving fewer than 50,000 people, there were only two libraries that reported broadband speeds higher than the 100 Mbps target. These libraries were the Glendive Public Library and the Broadwater School and Community Library in Townsend. In other words, 98% of the public libraries in our study serving less than 50,000 people reported speeds below the FCC’s bandwidth target of 100 Mbps.
- The 10 public libraries with the slowest download speeds reported speeds of less than 5 Mbps. These 10 libraries were: Ekalaka Public Library; Judith Basin County Free Library; Lewis and Clark Library – Augusta Branch; Lewis and Clark Library – Lincoln Branch; Lewis and Clark Library – East Helena Branch; Belgrade Community Library; Mineral County Public Library – Alberton Branch; Big Horn County Public Library; Philipsburg Public Library; and Moore Memorial Public Library.
- Twenty-eight of the public libraries in the state (24% of the total) reported being the only source of free Wi-Fi in their communities. Among these 28 libraries only three were still open with limited hours/access due to the pandemic.
- In communities that have additional access points for free Wi-Fi access, library staff identified the following sources: schools limited to adults, visitor centers, chambers of commerce, churches, town halls, public parks with Wi-Fi access senior citizens centers, rest areas, and youth centers. Other Wi-Fi locations in commercial locations in communities, according to library staff, included the following: coffee shops/cafes, restaurants, bars, and laundromats. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced many small businesses to close, the number of communities relying solely on library Wi-Fi may end up increasing.
Our report concludes with recommendations for addressing the lack of robust broadband connectivity and related IT infrastructure in public libraries across Montana. We hope the report and the broadband measurement data collected through the Toward Gigabit Libraries Toolkit will be helpful to the Montana State Library as it advocates for libraries. Similar efforts — such as our Measuring Library Broadband Networks project with Measurement Lab at Code for Science & Society (2) — should help public libraries gain access to the data needed to show the speeds and quality of service of their broadband internet connections.
The COVID-19 pandemic starkly highlights our dependence on broadband. While sheltering in place, many of us continue to work, learn and stay connected through high-speed internet connections. But for millions of Americans who do not have broadband in the home, libraries and other community anchor institutions offer the connectivity too many of us take for granted. But, as our data from Montana show, too many libraries are falling short on reaching the bandwidth goals policymakers have set so libraries can keep communities connected. This is why — as the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition advocates — communities should “deploy broadband to and through” community anchor institutions.
- Award # RE-00-15-0110-15
- Also funded by the IMLS — award # LG-71-18-0110-18
Colin Rhinesmith is an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. His work is focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology, particularly in areas related to digital equity and community technology. He has been a Google Policy Fellow and an adjunct research fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute in Washington, D.C. He was also a faculty research fellow with the Benton Foundation and a faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Information in Society Fellow, a researcher with the Center for People and Infrastructures, and a research scholar with the Center for Digital Inclusion.
Jo Dutilloy received a BA in Comparative Literature from Bryn Mawr College and is working towards a dual Master’s degree in Archives and History at Simmons. They have been passionate about digital stewardship and public access to information since their summer as a Digital Humanities Intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Jo continues to pursue the development of open and equitable access to information in this and other projects.
Susan Kennedy is a Graduate Research Assistant for the Community Informatics Lab at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University. Susan received her BA in Philosophy and Music from Bennington College, and will graduate from Simmons with her Master’s of Library and Information Science in May 2020. Her work with the Measuring Library Broadband Networks project fostered her passion for community technology and broadband access. She’s excited about community informatics research and public librarianship, especially how public libraries and their communities can support digital equity and inclusion, information and civic literacy, and combating disinformation.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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