Broadband & Public Libraries

Public libraries provide essential services to their communities through broadband Internet technologies. Broadband through public libraries enables millions of people to have access to E-government, employment, education, health and other Internet-enabled services and resources. Furthermore, public libraries offer broadband Internet connectivity at speeds that often exceed what is available at work or in the home, and public libraries offer a wide range of free computer and Internet use instruction that depend on broadband access. The 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access survey1 found that:

  • 6.9% of public libraries still have connectivity speeds lower than 1.5 Mbps
  • 41.1% of public libraries report connection speeds are insufficient to meet patron needs some or all of the time
  • 90.5% of public libraries offer wireless (Wi-Fi) Internet access

Public Libraries Depend on Broadband Connections

Public libraries offer free access to computer workstations, broadband, and Wi-Fi. Connection speeds have increased gradually for public libraries, but many of today’s applications (e.g., social networking, streaming video) demand greater bandwidth and higher connection speeds. The public library service context is one in which multiple public access computers, staff computers, and patron devices (i.e., laptops and handheld mobile devices) connected via the library’s Wi-Fi are in continuous use as they access broadband-intensive services and resources, often using the same connection. It is likely the strain on public library broadband systems will continue to increase as patron’s come to rely on new interactive, multimedia, and high-resolution applications and programs.

While slightly more than half (58.3%) of public libraries reported in 2010-2011 that their broadband connection meets patron needs, more libraries are expected to report insufficient connections in coming years unless funding to improve broadband infrastructure is increased. To successfully fulfill their critical role as important Internet access providers in their communities, public libraries need funding and infrastructure to support high-speed broadband Internet connections. Though libraries have steadily increased their bandwidth capacity over the years (see Figure 1), the combination of an increase in the number of users and in the bandwidth requirements of the content – particularly the explosion of social media and user-generated content – has only increased bandwidth challenges. As more people rely on public libraries for Internet access, and as more of these people use a greater range of high bandwidth education, government, and entertainment content, the bandwidth capacity of libraries becomes an increasingly significant issue.

Broadband and Formal Library Technology Instruction

The majority of public libraries offer some form of technology training for patrons, and among those that offer formal classes in computer skills and digital literacy, 86.5% offer classes on general Internet use and 75.6% offer classes on how to search for information online. In order to continue to provide formal instruction on these broadband-dependent applications and services, public libraries will continue to require increased capacity and higher connection speeds.

The Capacity vs. Quality Access Trade-off

Many libraries (90.5%) have established Wi-Fi networks to help meet access demands (see Figure 2). However, in 82.3% of libraries with wireless access, the workstations and the wireless access share the same bandwidth and connection. In other words, libraries have added connection capacity at the expense of connection quality. The higher the number of devices and users, and the higher the content demand on bandwidth consumption, the larger the drain on the connection speed of the library.

As a result, though the library may subscribe to a high-speed connection, the user experience can be one of slow connectivity and near dial-up speeds. As an example, take a common scenario: a public library has 15 public access workstations in constant use; it offers Wi-Fi that supports another 10-15 simultaneous connections, typically in use; the library has a T1 connection (1.5 Mbps or megabits per second leased line broadband service); and the Wi-Fi and public access workstations share the same connection.  With up to 30 devices sharing the same 1.5 Mbps connection, the connection speed at the device level is the equivalent of dial-up service, severely affecting the quality of the user experience.

Furthermore, most public libraries (74.3%) reported that they did not increase their connection speed during the past year. At the same time, 60.1% of public libraries report an increase in the use of their public access workstations and 74.9% report an increase in the use of their Wi-Fi network. If these trends continue, we can expect the demands on public library networks to exceed capacity in the near future, especially at urban public libraries.

Technology Access and Broadband Availability

In 2011-2012, the maximum speed in most libraries is broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) definition of 200 kilobits per second (kbps) or .2 Mbps, in at least one direction.2  This definition, however, is lower than the threshold for broadband in most other technologically advanced nations, with the U.S. definition ranking 19th in required capacity to meet the definition of broadband.3 It is important, however, to recognize that the FCC’s definition of broadband is at the household level, and does not take into account the public access and continual use environment of the public library.

Almost all libraries have connection speeds that fulfill the FCC definition of broadband access. Currently, only 2.8% of libraries have a connection speed below 768 Kbps (dial-up modem speed). The majority of libraries have connection speeds at 1.5 Mbps (16.5%) or above 1.5 Mbps  60.3 before (69.7%). The number of libraries with connection speeds above 1.5 Mbps is notably greater than the %60.3 in 2010-2011 and the 51.8% reported in 2009-2010. The areas with the higher levels of capacity tend to be in urban (83.8%) and suburban areas (77.2%).

In September 2010, the FCC announced upgrades to the E-rate (education rate) program that should allow schools and public libraries to use the program’s funds to tap into existing fiber optic lines and state, regional, and local broadband networks.4 “Dark fiber” networks could allow public libraries to increase their connection speeds from dramatically to 1 Gbps (gigabits per second), but these plans may face opposition from some Internet service providers.5

Key Issues and Challenges

Despite increasing demands on connection speeds in many libraries, only 15.7% of public libraries with speeds over 1.5 mbps have increased their connection speed in the past year. Libraries face a number of challenges regarding their broadband capacity:

  • Cost: Libraries report cost factors, 77.9%, as a challenge in maintaining, sustaining and enhancing their technology infrastructure.
  • The capacity vs. quality trade-off: The maximum connection speed and the availability of Wi-Fi are important measures of capacity. These capacity measures, however, can mask the quality of user experience, as actual connection speeds and capacity at the level of the individual user are often substantially diminished through the shared access that public libraries offer.
  • Broadband management: Many libraries simply subscribe to a connectivity service through an ISP, overlay their Internet-enabled services, and then fail to enact broadband and/or network management practices that would maximize the efficiency of their connectivity.6

The public access service context, combined with the continually increasing bandwidth needs of new technologies, services, and resources, dictate the need for libraries to continually increase their connectivity speeds, modify their networks, and actively manage their connectivity. Not doing so will leave behind the millions of people in communities who rely on public access technologies and Internet connectivity provided through the public library.

Public libraries are vital community institutions, and numerous studies of broadband penetration have determined that community based efforts are a key element for successful adoption.7 In 64.5% of communities in the United States, public libraries are the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet. As a result, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has observed that “public libraries are well positioned to play a greater role in providing access points to broadband services for people in both urban and rural areas and to families in need.”8 This position of community access point for Internet access – particularly broadband access –has not yet translated into sustained economic and policy support for public libraries as providers of this access.9  Without greater support for public libraries to help them provide the connection speeds that will meet the needs of patrons using increasingly complex and bandwidth-intensive content, many public libraries will continue to struggle to maintain access capacity that meets patron needs.

References

Bertot, J.C., McDermott, A., Lincoln, R., Real, B., & Peterson, K. (2012). 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey: Survey Findings & Report. College Park, MD: Information Policy & Access Center, University of Maryland College Park. Available at http://www.plinternetsurvey.org.

2 Federal Communications Commission. (2010). What is broadband? Available: http://www.broadband.gov/about_broadband.html.

3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (n.d). OECD broadband portal. Available: http://www.oecd.org/sti/ict/broadband.

4 Federal Communications Commission. (2010). FCC enables high-speed, affordable broadband for schools and libraries, by David Fiske. Available: http://benton.org/node/42539.

5 Singel, Ryan. (2010). Schools and libraries can rent fiber with fed funds, FCC says. Epicenter. Available: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/09/schools-and-libraries-can-rent-fiber-with-fed-funds-fcc-says/.

6 Bertot, J.C., & McClure, C.R. (2007). Assessing sufficiency and quality of bandwidth for public libraries. Information Technology and Libraries, 26(1): 14-22.

7 Bouras, C., Giannaka, E., & Tsiatsos, T. (2009). Identifying best practices for supporting broadband growth: Methodology and analysis. Journal of Network and Computer Applications, 32(4), 795-807.

8 Pastore, E., & Henderson, E. (2009). Data note: Libraries use broadband Internet service to serve high need communities. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Available: http://www.imls.gov/pdf/DataNote2009_01.pdf. Page 2.

9 Mandel, L. H., Bishop, B. W., McClure, C. R., Bertot, J. C., & Jaeger, P. T. (2010). Broadband for public libraries: Importance, issues, and research needs. Government Information Quarterly, 27(3): 280-291.