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CHAPTER VII - Technology

If human capital is one main factor in the library innovation equation, technology is the other. Libraries are critical anchor institutions that provide a major point of free Internet access for many Americans. Libraries support technology use by patrons in a variety of ways, including by offering classes, programs and spaces to develop hands-on skills, digital literacy, maker spaces, media labs and the like. Increasingly, libraries are loaning technologies for patrons to use at home. This includes laptops, e-readers and Wi-Fi hotspots.

As celebrated as some of the library experiments with technology are (Wi-Fi hotspot lending, the all-digital Bibliotech library in San Antonio), there is reason for concern that libraries individually and collectively are not positioning themselves well for the digital future. This concern has as much to do with the ways in which libraries themselves are using and planning for technology as it does with the current state of broadband capacity at public libraries.

Participants identified technology as one of the holes in letting the edge and core interact in library institutions. “Libraries are fairly good at seeing opportunities for patrons,” said Jason Griffey, Founder and Principal of the technology consultancy Evenly Distributed LLC and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, who cited library support for the maker space movement as an example. “Libraries are very big on providing these tools to their communities, but they are terrible at using them for themselves (i.e., building things for themselves).”

Missing the Internet. Jonathan Chambers, Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission, reflected on the change in the conversation about public libraries and their infrastructure since he first came to an Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries event in August of 2013. “Two years ago, there was a lot of discussion of physical space or virtual space, and even when we broke into the three groups (people, place, platform), place was thought of as place and platform. A lot of the discussion today seems to be about the physical space at the library. I think where the libraries have missed, and it’s hard to believe, but libraries have largely missed the Internet.”

Chambers described the results of an Alexa search he conducted of the most visited sites on the web. Goodreads, the Amazon-owned book recommendation engine and online social space, was ranked #130. “Goodreads should be the library,” said Chambers. “They [libraries] should own it. The library brand is books. If nothing else, libraries should be about book discovery. So not to have a web site that libraries participate in, that is all about discovery, is all about missing the Internet.”

Chambers went on to reveal that, before you hit any library site, Overdrive appears at the #500 ranking. “Libraries need to form their own e-book application. People are visiting Overdrive, through the Overdrive app or the Overdrive site. Libraries are not even communicating with their own patrons.” The New York Public Library is ranked around #3,250, as is the Los Angeles Public Library. Chambers’ challenge to the library community was this: “What is the role of libraries on the Internet? Not Internet access, but on the Internet as the place where people go for information, for access.”

Jake Barton agreed with Chambers. “I think that’s exactly right. Libraries have missed the Internet. I want to underscore the physicalness of libraries. The thing that distinguishes libraries is the physicalness of it. Books are a part of that. Libraries need to figure out how libraries are on the Internet.”

While it may be too late for libraries to own their role on the Internet, Philipp Schmidt, Co-Founder of Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) and Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab, suggested that libraries ought to be looking ahead to the next wave of technologies that will affect libraries and their communities. “Libraries are really good at looking at equity. You may be talking about virtual spaces now, but for an organization with a core of information and knowledge there is artificial intelligence that is right around the corner. Artificial intelligence is better at making a diagnosis than the doctor itself. Libraries need to pay attention to the next technology,” said Schmidt. [Click to view video clips of Philipp Schmidt and Jason Griffey on libraries and technology.]

Charlie Firestone, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, asked how libraries can integrate technology into the institutions. “Is it pulling at the edges from the core? Or from the edges, pulling core people to the edges?” asked Firestone.

Short-term Experiments: Lessons from Wi-Fi Hotspot Lending. New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library each have pilot programs underway for lending Wi-Fi hotspot technology that could help to answer Firestone’s questions. During the roundtable, Mary Lee Kennedy and Brian Bannon gave brief presentations on the status of these pilot programs, what they are learning and what may come next. [Click to view the Mary Lee Kennedy/NYPL and Brian Bannon/CPL presentations on Wi-Fi hotspot lending.]

New York Public Library. NYPL is conducting its Library Hotspot lending pilot with Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library, as well as libraries in Maine and Kansas. “The opportunity is to look at how internet access can benefit large urban areas and smaller population bases. We are testing different lending patterns, as we try to understand whether that makes a difference,” said Kennedy.

The New York pilot is critical given that 27% of New Yorkers don’t have home broadband access. Almost 2/3 of those New Yorkers earn less than $20,000 a year. Libraries play an important role in broadband access, but library personnel noticed that library hours don’t always match up with the times when people need access. “We would walk by the library and people would be sitting on the doorsteps,” using library Wi-Fi bleed to access the Internet, said Kennedy.

For the pilot in the spring of 2014, the New York Public Library lent out 100 hotspots to students participating in educational programs at four branches across three boroughs. Most were students in high need neighborhoods, 37% speak Spanish at home. The loan period lasted for 2 months, renewable once. The devices pulled a cellular phone signal from Sprint’s network and distributed a local Wi-Fi broadcast that allowed internet-enabled devices like computers and smartphones to connect to the Internet. Among other findings, through surveys after the program, they learned:

  • Users spent an average of 3.19 hours online per day, and most often at times when the library is closed (6PM – 12AM local).
  • File sharing, YouTube, and Google properties were the bulk of the activity.
  • In twenty-three responses to the assessment survey, parents stated they helped their kids do homework, as well as for job-related purposes.
  • If offered Internet service for $10/month, the majority of respondents would be somewhat or very likely to purchase it.

Kennedy reported that a side benefit for the students and the parents was confidence. “The more you are successful at something, the more confident you become, the more you’re able to contribute in other ways,” she said.

Based on the initial pilot, NYPL and its partners launched a new pilot with 10,000 mobile hotspot units in December 2014. (Kennedy reported that the rural pilots are smaller in size, with Maine lending 80 units at six libraries and Kansas lending 90 units in eight libraries/communities.) “We don’t have results yet, but we will be doing an assessment. We’ve talked a lot about what this means in terms of the role of libraries? As well as whether device lending is a scalable solution.” Kennedy said. “This is a pilot, an experiment, and not the end result of what we will do. It shines a light on the need for broadband access. It is another example of the importance of iteration. Knowing the goal guides in trying things out,” said Kennedy.

Chicago Public Library. CPL started its Internet to Go pilot with a similar set of goals and a recognition that one in three Chicagoans don’t have a computer at home and home broadband penetration in some of Chicago’s neediest communities is as low as 20-30%. The goals included a combination of improving Internet access at home after hours so that people can practice skills, and extending the library’s role in Internet access beyond the 2-hour window available at the library. CPL’s program provides the hotspots plus laptops and additional wrap-around services for skills and coaching.

“What specifically we're looking for is a combination of changed attitudes and behaviors around broadband at home,” said Brian Bannon. “We are interested in changing or impacting broadband adoption rates at home as a result of people taking the technology home and experimenting with it. And for those who find, after playing and experimenting with it, that there's actually value, our hope is that we can help expose them to low‑cost or free programs where they can more permanently become connected at home. Our goal is not to be the ongoing free provider at home. It's more about providing a prolonged experience with the goal of future adoption.”

CPL’s pilot allows people at specific locations in the communities with low broadband adoption rates to check out the hotspot unit and laptop for three weeks with an option to renew, similar to other library materials. Because CPL restricted the checkouts to these locations, Bannon said he was hoping the units would stay in these neighborhoods. “We mapped the checking out of these items, and they're hyper-localized. So the hotspots are actually staying within the communities that are checking them out, which we think is a good thing.”

Among the interesting data that the pilot has yielded thus far, Bannon reported:

  • 11% of those checking out didn’t currently have library cards.
  • 63% have kids in the home.
  • A little more than half are one adult in household.
  • 70% of folks using program living in multiplex units—apartments, etc.
  • 30% are under US poverty rate and 60% are below $49k/year
  • About half are employed.
  • 55% of those who participated report that they would be likely or very likely to pay $20 or less for broadband at home.

Like NYPL, CPL doesn’t see Wi-Fi hotspot lending at libraries as the solution to broadband inequality. It is partially the literacy element that interests the library. “What we found during the revitalization of healthcare, many libraries, and we were one of them, doubled down on essentially becoming the mentors to help people apply for healthcare. And so now we are wondering, is that the next evolution? For those who are interested in having permanent connectivity at home and are willing to pay $20 or less (and there are programs that are more like $10 per month), it seems that there could be an interesting opportunity to help make some of those conversions right at the home branch.”

When questioned as to whether this program could be a feeder ramp to something else, Brian Bannon replied that he was not certain how deeply CPL would invest in this particular model, but that he does see the project as an on-ramp to a potentially bigger investment. “We started to look at other technologies such as white space, which we are watching closely. This experiment was important in terms of looking at broadband adoption. It forced an internal conversation to look at other approaches that may be as good or better.”

Mary Lee Kennedy shared this view, saying, “We don't see this as the long-term solution. It opened the door to the conversation to address the long term and definitely impacts what our investment should be next time. …The dialogue was critical, both internally and with our stakeholders. And so I think it’s an incredibly important investment that you [Knight Foundation] made.”

Building Technology Infrastructure for the Future

In an April 2015 report on library speed test results, Larra Clark of the American Library Association and John Bertot and colleagues at the University of Maryland reported the following:

Overall, libraries…report some progress in their public internet speeds (e.g., about 10% of libraries reported speeds of 1.5 Megabits per second or less, compared with 23% two years earlier), but still falling far short of goals established in the recent E-rate Modernization proceeding and in the National Broadband Plan (with about 2% of libraries with 1 Gigabit per second speeds). Only about half of all libraries reported subscribed internet download speeds greater than 10 Mbps, with city libraries generally skewing on the higher end (about 27% with subscribed speeds of 100 Mbps or higher) and rural libraries generally skewing on the lower end (about 3% with speeds of 100 Mbps or higher). Two-thirds of all libraries indicated they would like to improve their broadband speeds. (Larra Clark, John Bertot, et al., Broadband Quality in Public Libraries: Speed Test Highlights, April 2015.

In December 2014, the Federal Communication Commission adopted the second of two orders reforming the 18-year old E-rate program, a federal program that provides discounted telecommunications, Internet access and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries (the program is officially known as the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund). The Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Jonathan Chambers, provided a summary of the changes that the FCC orders made to the E-rate program, the opportunities available to libraries as a result of these changes, and his concerns about the money that may be left on the table five years from now. Chambers also proposed solutions for dealing with some of the barriers that historically have affected library participation.

Chambers highlighted three salient changes to E-rate that affect libraries.

  • The FCC increased the funding available for schools and libraries from then $2.4 billion a year to now $3.9 billion a year, indexed for inflation (so this amount will grow in future years).
  • The FCC changed some budgeting mechanisms in the way in which internal connection, inside wiring and Wi-Fi hotspots are funded to ensure that there would be sufficient budget. For the two years prior to last year, there had been no money spent out of the program for internal connections, although money was made available. The funding mechanism is based on size, with the USAC paying $5.00/sq. foot for urban libraries, $2.30/sq. foot for non-urban libraries, and a guaranteed $9,200 for libraries smaller than 4,000 sq. feet.
  • The FCC changed the way schools and libraries can get funding and what they can use the funding for, eliminating funding for everything other than broadband.

On this last change, Chambers explained the significance for libraries: “We changed it from a spending program to an investment program, at least for a significant part of it. The FCC now permits schools or libraries to invest so that they can own their own infrastructure, they could invest so that somebody else owns the infrastructure, but they have IRUs, which are indefeasible rights of use, for long periods of time…and we agreed to pay explicitly for what's called special construction.”

The FCC would increase its share up to an additional 10 percent if there was a state program that would match the special construction charge. So, with schools and libraries paying a share based on poverty level, the E-rate program would pay anywhere from 20 percent (for wealthy school districts) to 90 percent (for poor school districts). The average is just over 70 percent. For an 80 percent school or library, if there’s a state program that will pay a share of the construction, the library could get free fiber built to the library building. The library would incur the costs of dedicated service and maintenance of the fiber. Libraries could prepare for the future with a 100 Mbps, 1 gigabit or even 10 gigabit capacity at very little incremental cost to the library. “It is virtually unlimited capacity once you've laid the fiber. It's all about, then, changing the electronics,” Chambers said.

For the two-thirds of libraries that indicated in the speed testing survey that they would like to improve their broadband speeds, the E-rate program offers a major opportunity to do so. (It is puzzling that one third of all libraries expressed no interest in improving their broadband speeds.) The question is, will libraries take advantage of this once in a generation opportunity? And what can the government do to help establish a system that allows libraries to enjoy this opportunity?

Indications from the data available about library applications for E-rate funds in the current year are not encouraging. Here is Chambers’ assessment of the numbers:

We're going to spend $1.6 billion just on the internal connection, Wi-Fi hotspots, in schools this year. We're going to spend about $25 [million] to $30 million on libraries. That has nothing to do with the way we run our program. It has everything to do with libraries not participating.

My figures are not going to be precise, because I can see library applications when it's a library‑only application, I can see libraries when they apply with a consortia, but I can't see in the data what the library numbers are within a consortia, so I'll give ranges. For the rest of—that is for Internet access and voice and everything else, even though we're phasing out voice, this year schools will receive about $2.3 billion. That's on top of the $1.6 billion. And libraries will get about $150 million, give or take a buck…and most of that money is voice. It's not even broadband.

So the problem has been and the problem continues to be that libraries don't take advantage of the program. …everybody can just go out and buy their own Internet access and pay what commercial rates are, but if you're going to pass up—you know, somebody that's going to pay 90 cents on the dollar for your service, and you're going to pass up that opportunity to own something, if you're able to own the facility—this is really a once in a generation type opportunity.

The application period for the second year of E-rate discounts runs from January through March 2016. The window for schools and libraries to take advantage of these exceptionally generous discounts will close in three to five years because the FCC made some rules temporary and waived others for four years as a way to drive construction over the next three to five years.

For those who are familiar with it, the federal E-rate program is like a problem embedded in an opportunity because of the barriers that make applying for E-rate funds very challenging for some libraries. Roundtable participants discussed these issues, which include the following:

  • Local government bureaucracies
  • Lack of resources, expertise or other capacity to complete the application
  • Complexity of the application itself
  • Internet filtering requirements under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
  • Lack of knowledge about the process or the benefits

Participants recognized the burden that the E-rate process places on library directors and staff and said that it does not makes sense for libraries to shoulder the full burden of figuring out the right answers to all the questions that come up in preparing for and making an application for the federal discounts. With these barriers in mind, Chambers proposed the creation of a Turbo Tax-like tool to help libraries prepare their RFPs and applications. Modeled on a similar tool developed for small businesses in the state of Wisconsin, the Library E-rate Tool would streamline the bidding and application processes that are repeated many times over by individual applicants. It would make pricing and other information more transparent. Libraries could enter data about who they are, number of patrons, square footage, number of rooms, etc. and the tool would calculate how much bandwidth you need. The tool could show where the bandwidth could be purchased in the surrounding area, and could even print an RFP (part of the E-rate requirements) and then produce the necessary forms to apply for E-rate.

Producing such a tool within the FCC would take several years. If the library field were to pick up the idea and run with it, a prototype could be produced in a matter of months, Chambers thought. Roundtable participants were impressed by the E-rate opportunity and highly supportive of the idea for a Library E-rate Tool, but expressed concerns that no entity or organization within the library field would pick it up and make it happen, even as they suggested organizations for whom it would seem a natural fit: the American Library Association or its subsidiary, the Public Library Association; Urban Libraries Council; the association of state librarians; the Institute for Museum and Library Services; or foundations that support libraries. The discussion raised the issue once again of the constraints of a field that is so highly localized in its structure, funding and governance and lacks a tradition of working together at national scale.

Participants did suggest that, in the absence of a tool, more information could be gathered about libraries that are being successful—doing it right—and these examples could be shared through webinars or other means of professional education and information sharing.

Participants also suggested that a campaign to educate other government stakeholders could raise the awareness and sense of urgency around the three-to-five year window of opportunity on E-rate. This could include outreach to local government associations like the National League of Cities or U.S. Conference of Mayors. Better awareness of the money that is at stake might help libraries to engage the support and assistance of potential partners in relevant government departments. As with the tool proposal, it was not readily apparent who would manage such an externally focused campaign.

Finally, the local communities and their leaders also can play an important role in being part of the overall broadband vision and build-out process. Library E-rate technology will be an excellent way to improve the overall digital literacy of a community and will be situated in the broader community technology context.

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