Library Survey Data Shows Internet Gaps and Need for Federal Action
Oleksandr Panasovskyi // Shutterstock
March 2, 2021
In the past two months, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have made three strides toward addressing the digital divide—actions that are long overdue given how much students and families across the United States need adequate internet access from home during the pandemic.
A new report from New America that focuses on public libraries, written by myself, Sabia Prescott, and Claire Park, provides timely evidence of why these moves are necessary, and shows how much more needs to be done.
But first, the news of progress: The first step forward was the creation of the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program, passed by Congress on December 21st as part of a spending bill for COVID relief. The second was the FCC seeking comment on several petitions requesting an emergency expansion of the E-Rate program to facilitate remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, which enables schools and libraries to apply for deep discounts on internet services. And third, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to include a boost to E-Rate in the American Rescue Plan (HR 1319) now in front of the Senate.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is designed to provide $50 per month during the pandemic to low-income households ($75 for qualifying households in Tribal areas); the FCC approved an order determining the rules of eligibility and other logistics for the program just last week.
The E-Rate program was started in 1996 to help public schools and libraries cover the cost of internet access in their buildings, and many organizations and states (notably the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition, as well as state agencies in Nevada and Colorado) have called for it to be expanded to support internet access by patrons and students “off campus” to better serve the needs of educators and students. Last month, Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel responded to their calls by inviting the public to comment and this month the FCC is expected to act. (The Open Technology Institute and Education Policy Program at New America have recently submitted detailed comments and reply comments in support of both of these FCC programs.)
And the text of the American Rescue Plan calls for an Emergency Connectivity Fund of $7.6 billion to support broadband access via schools and libraries during the pandemic, through the E-Rate program. The Senate is expected to vote on it before March 14th, when unemployment benefits expire.
Our New America report, Public Libraries and the Pandemic: Digital Shifts and Disparities to Overcome, features findings from a survey of 2,620 adults in the United States. The survey asked respondents how the pandemic affected their use of the public library, if they were aware of and able to use the online resources their library provided, and if they lost their main source of internet access when library buildings were (or remain) closed. Fifteen percent said they lost their main internet access with the library closures. Other findings showed differences by race, income, and age. (See an example in Chart 6 below.)
The report concludes with recommendations for policymakers, including the recommendations that the FCC expand the E-Rate program and make the Emergency Broadband Benefit permanent. These three federal breakthrough of the last few months provide strong momentum for turning these recommendations into reality. The emergency benefit program, if continued after the pandemic, would go a long way toward curbing the problem of affordability of broadband access. The potential E-Rate expansion enabling public libraries to ramp up their offerings, like mobile WiFi, that are helping people gain access to materials that they have already paid for with their tax dollars. Other recommendations in the report focus on policies that encourage collaboration and partnership with schools and community-based organizations to ensure inclusivity and more access to digital mentorship and navigator programs.
→ Read the full report, including appendices with complete results from the surveys.
→ Register for our event to unpack and discuss these findings, at 1 pm ET on March 22.
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