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CHAPTER 2 - What CENIC Means

Public libraries have always been in the business of moving information and knowledge across networks. Checking out a book, taking it home on a bike or bus, and sharing its content in conversations with friends is the old-school way of networked information- sharing. Electronic networks are the currency of information-sharing today—a reality that libraries have understood for decades and that has prompted large investments by public libraries in digital infrastructure.

Yet some library facilities, especially in rural areas, are saddled with speeds that fall below the Federal Communications Commission’s 25 Megabits per second download threshold for consumer broadband. This is at a time when community anchor institutions such as libraries need speeds of at least 100 Mbps and, often, multi-gigabit networks.

What happens when libraries experience network upgrades that result in speeds orders of magnitude greater than they have previously had? The State of California offers insight into that question, as public libraries now are able to connect to the California Research and Education Network (CalREN). CalREN is managed by the nonprofit Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, or CENIC.

Over 80% of all library jurisdictions in California now have their internet connectivity and services through CENIC, which offers speeds of 1 to 100 Gbps to member institutions. As a result, many libraries have gone from relatively pedestrian network speeds in their facilities to gigabit-plus speeds. The leap in bandwidth has not, in some cases, been accompanied by new library initiatives to take full advantage of it.

To explore questions of how libraries respond to large increases in network speeds and how they can accelerate the development and uptake of innovative applications for gigabit connectivity, the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries convened a series of discussions with library officials, technologists and other stakeholders in Sacramento, California on December 4-5, 2018. The meeting offered a number of examples where bandwidth can do more to help libraries serve communities, identified obstacles that stand in the way, and offered recommendations for overcoming these obstacles. The discussion revealed excitement and anticipation over the CENIC network, but also apprehension about two gaps:

  • The expectations gap: This is the gap between how stakeholders view libraries’ role in their communities and the scope of community challenges that CENIC connectivity can help libraries address.
  • The bandwidth-imagination gap: This is the gap between the huge upgrade in network capability and the ability of libraries to develop new programs and services that fully exploit CENIC bandwidth.

The expectations gap calls on a range of stakeholders—elected officials, community leaders, the private sector, and library professionals—to contemplate how CENIC bandwidth and public libraries can help address significant challenges in California communities. The bandwidth-imagination gap calls on libraries to look outward to partners to develop programs and services that take advantage of CENIC capacity.

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