Suffering from the after-school network grinding-to-a-halt syndrome? Have a flat or declining budget with little state or local political support? Can’t figure out how to pay for a bandwidth upgrade to support patrons’ online activities such as searching for jobs and applying for e-government services? If you haven’t considered the e-rate program lately, now’s the time to take a fresh look at it: The program brings millions of dollars to public libraries each year—dollars that support telecommunications and information services critical to library service today.
The e-rate program was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1997 as mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Added to the Universal Service Fund (USF), a program that had long supported plain old telephone service to rural and hard-to-reach communities, the new program was one of the most significant public interest provisions in the 1996 act. The e-rate program was designed to ensure access to advanced telecommunications and information services for eligible libraries and schools. With at least $2.25 billion each year in discounts, the program provides funding support to libraries as well as public and private schools. The discounts range from 20%–90%, with the deepest discounts going to communities with the greatest need.
The e-rate program is one of the most effective tools public and school libraries–whether rural, suburban, or urban–have in the financial struggle to provide the types of broadband-enabled services that patrons need.
E-rate helps libraries meet future needs
Broadband needs today have greatly increased since the beginning of the program. Libraries offer a wider array of services for the public—many of which require reliable, high-capacity broadband connections. As technologies advance, the flexibility of the e-rate program enables libraries to expand connectivity according to their evolving needs. Libraries today provide patrons with access to e-government resources, videoconferencing services for job interviews, online databases, streaming video, and more. The bandwidth required for these types of applications is eligible for e-rate funding support.
E-rate success stories from libraries across the county abound. For example, Queens Library in New York, which is eligible for a 77% discount, has added new services including wireless access for the public at all 62 of its locations thanks to approximately $1.5 million in e-rate funding it receives each year. “More than 600 people per day use their own computers on our connections to the internet,” reports Queens Director of Information Technology Anthony Drew.
“Support from the e-rate program is the difference between us having 400 public access computers and the 1,300 we have today,” Drew continued. “Over the next year we also hope to go from 135 Mbps to 235 Mbps to support the enhanced communications our patrons want—texting, emailing, Facebook, and access to hundreds of online databases.”
The bandwidth that libraries such as Queens require will no doubt climb as more and more resources move online. An increasing number of libraries provide wireless access and patrons access their library’s network with their own devices. Many applications used by patrons require a fast and reliable internet connection. For libraries contemplating adding patron services that depend on advanced telecommunications, the e-rate program can provide significant support.
Insufficient broadband must not be the limiting factor in what kinds of services libraries are able to provide their communities.
Beyond the connectivity
We know that the information needs of 21st-century communities require a high-quality internet connection. However, it is more than the bandwidth that is at the heart of what libraries do for their communities. As ALA’s latest Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study puts it, technology is a tool “that enables our communities to more effectively and efficiently use the library. It’s helping people do what they need to do—whether that’s finding a book, doing research, or looking for a job.”
The services supported by the e-rate program allow libraries to respond to the needs of their communities in innovative and meaningful ways.
Jan Elliott, library director at Safford City–Graham County (Ariz.) Library, reported, “We helped a local man track down military service information to prove his service time, and after 30+ years of waiting, he is getting veterans benefits.”
“As the library manager, I see the importance of this funding every day,” Barbara Blackburn from Duncan (Ariz.) Public Library, said. “My reward for following through with the e-rate process comes when a laid-off worker leaves with a smile on his face after finding employment opportunities, successfully updating or writing a résumé, or is able to access a website on his own. Or the pride a student has when he finishes and shares a report for school, or the excitement of grandparents when they share the pictures of grandchildren they received through email.”
A fresh look at e-rate
Despite some uncertain early years, questions related to application processes, and lingering misperceptions about program requirements, the e-rate program has helped libraries—rural, urban, large, and small—offer services and programs they could not have otherwise.
Since 1997 the program has seen improvements—including the recent elimination of the technology plan requirement for telecommunications and internet access. Though there is a steep learning curve for new applicants, support is available at the state and federal level. Those who are hesitant to apply can heed the advice of Maine State Librarian Linda Lord, who chairs ALA’s E-rate Task Force:
“First check to see if your state library has a person who is an e-rate specialist who can help you with the forms and, most importantly to me, figure your return on investment,” Lord said. “Even if it takes you two days to complete the various forms, divide your salary into what you get from the e-rate program. In Maine that return is well worth the effort for our consortium application. Many of our small libraries would not have the 10 Mbps connectivity they now enjoy without support from the e-rate program.”
Expert support and advocacy
In 1997 there was little opportunity for support in understanding the new and complex program. Changes to the program and the application process created a challenging tangle of timelines, forms, and procedures, but there are now many strategies for libraries to move successfully through the e-rate application process—from procurement of services to disbursement of funds.
State e-rate coordinators play a vital role in the successful completion of e-rate applications by assisting individual libraries, library systems, and consortia. State coordinators are trained in the intricacies of the e-rate application process, are the primary channel for disseminating information to the field, and often provide direct assistance to applicants throughout the application process.
For example, e-rate has resulted in a savings of $5 million annually to the State Library of Louisiana and the state’s 337 public libraries.
“When we compile the results from our annual customer service satisfaction survey, the libraries repeatedly state in great detail how they are extremely grateful for our e-rate assistance and that the process would be overwhelming without our help,” Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton said. “We provide hands-on e-rate assistance with site visits, annual training, and also via email and telephone, with one person dedicated specifically to this service. We do this at no cost to the libraries.”
In addition to this support from state coordinators, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the e-rate program, holds trainings, provides substantial phone support, and conducts other outreach to support program applicants. The SLD website is a treasure trove of resources including video tutorials, an extensive reference area, required forms, and newsletters with important program alerts and updates. For the beginner, the website also thoroughly describes the program and application process. Such expert support helps individual applicants complete successful e-rate applications.
The ALA Washington Office monitors regulatory and legislative actions related to the e-rate program. With the help of ALA’s E-rate Task Force and guidance from Linda Schatz, the Office for Information Technology Policy’s expert e-rate consultant, OITP focuses on regulatory and policy issues and conducts educational outreach activities targeted at state e-rate coordinators, as well as national-level policy makers. ALA’s Office for Government Relations (OGR) lobbies Congress to advance the interests of the library community and actively advocates for and responds to e-rate related legislative issues.
Since the beginning of the e-rate program, ALA, through the work of OITP and OGR, has fought for improvements. OITP has built a solid relationship with the FCC and the SLD, the two main bodies that oversee the e-rate program. Because OITP participates in the FCC’s official comment process at every opportunity, ALA is widely viewed as a knowledgeable resource. OITP provides commission staff with expert input and on-the-ground examples that most recently helped inform library-specific issues in the FCC’s Sixth Report and Order, the most recent review of the e-rate program. OGR has cultivated strong relationships with key members of Congress and their staffs and is engaged in robust lobbying efforts as a member of EdLiNC, a coalition of education organizations and ALA.
If you currently receive e-rate discounts, stay involved. Learn about current e-rate activities at District Dispatch. Be prepared to reach out to your legislative representative to advocate for continued support of the e-rate program.
If you are eligible for e-rate but do not currently participate, explore the benefits the e-rate program could bring to your library, community, and state. As Linda Lord says, “In short, all webinars, online interlibrary loan, downloadable audio and e-books are available to all Maine libraries regardless of location, size, or economic support with the help of the e-rate program. Also we have libraries applying for basic services this year that had not applied before. They did the math and it’s worth it!”
MARIJKE VISSER is assistant director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy.