Public Libraries and Broadband
Connection speeds have increased over time for public libraries. But today’s applications (e.g., high definition video, streaming content) demand greater bandwidth and higher connection speeds, and two-thirds of public libraries indicated a desire to increase their bandwidth to meet public demand.
Subscribed Download Speed in Public Libraries (2009-2014). Source: Digital Inclusion and Public Library Funding & Technology Access Surveys.
Digital Equity, Inclusion, and Readiness
A foundation to digital equity, inclusion, and participation is access to broadband technologies and services. But roughly 17% of the population does not have Internet access in the home in part due to cost, inadequate computing technologies, and lack of availability of broadband services. Broadband adoption is a multi-dimensional challenge that involves three key components:
- Access to broadband technology and services;
- Sustainability to ensure ongoing access to broadband technology and services; and
- Adoption of broadband technologies by individuals and communities.
Without access to broadband technologies through public libraries, many individuals are unable to pursue economic, social, or other opportunities.
Services through Broadband
The public library service context is one in which multiple public access computers, staff computers, and user devices (i.e., laptops, tablets, smartphones) connected via the library’s wireless Internet (WiFi) are in continuous use as they access broadband-intensive services and resources. And in today’s context, one individual might have multiple connected devices connected to the library’s WiFi such as a tablet, smartphone, and/or laptop. Without high-quality broadband connectivity, public libraries are unable to offer essential public access services on which millions of people rely to support their learning, employment, E-government, health, and other information needs.
WiFi Provision by Public Libraries (2009-2014). Source: Digital Inclusion and Public Library Funding & Technology Access Surveys.
Selected libraries benefitted from Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant funding between 2009 and 2012.
- Delaware was able to upgrade all its libraries to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) connections.
- Alaska’s Online with Libraries (OWL) project was able to enhance Public Computer Centers at 97 libraries, provide faster internet connections to many mainly rural/remote libraries, and establish a public videoconferencing network for all of the libraries so that they can provide online training and other purposes.
- Libraries in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, and more also benefitted from BTOP.
BTOP funding ended in 2013, yet the need for broadband in public libraries remains.
Broadband Capacity and Quality
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 megabits per second (Mbps) upload. The definition, however, is based on a household with “broadband with sufficient capabilities” as opposed to a public access venue such as the public library. Currently, only 8.2% of libraries have a connection speed below 1.5Mbps. More than half (57.6%) of libraries have speeds of greater than 10Mbps, while 34.1% of libraries have download speeds between 1.6Mbps and 10Mbps. In all, roughly 40% of public libraries do not meet the FCC's download speed definition of broadband, with a larger percentage of rural and town libraries not meeting the threshold than city or suburban libraries.
As reported in the 2013 Digital Inclusion survey, public libraries are the only provider of free public access to computers and the Internet in 64.5% of communities in the United States. 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.” BTOP sparked investment in broadband technologies and services from which some libraries benefitted greatly, and E-rate continues to be an essential program that enhances broadband in public libraries.
More details on this topic are available in our Public Libraries & Broadband issue brief.
 Federal Communications Commission. (2015). Broadband Availability in America: With Rural Americans Looking for High-Speed Services, Adequate Broadband Speeds Remain Out of Reach for Many. Washington, DC: FCC. Available at: https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-331734A1.pdf.