Fed WiFi funding plan irks libraries

As far too many of us have learned as a result of the recession, the public library is often the only place where out-of-work Americans can go to apply for jobs and unemployment benefits online.

In many cases, the only way libraries can afford to offer those services is with help from the federal government. Through a public program known as E-Rate, Washington gives institutions a bit of money each year to defray the costs of Internet service and equipment. That initiative got a big boost recently when the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to spend $1 billion a year for the next two years on better WiFi, amid a broader push to modernize the E-Rate program.

Now the FCC has to decide how to divide that $2 billion — and libraries are smack in the center of a brewing fight over it.

Library directors from five cities, including Seattle, Memphis and Hartford, Conn., sent letters to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler last week saying they stand to be shortchanged if the commission moves forward with a plan to tie the money to the square footage of their facilities. Under the proposal, the FCC would give libraries a budget for WiFi funding at a rate of $1 per square foot – which some cities say is not nearly enough.

“WiFi costs are not merely a function of the square footage of a room with wireless connectivity,” wrote Matthew Poland, chief executive of Hartford’s public library system. “WiFi performance is a function of users.”

Poland argued that other libraries – such as those serving wealthy suburbanites – tend to be bigger. Not only would the proposed formula give more funding to suburban facilities, but those libraries also would be taking in money that might be put to better use elsewhere. Inner-city libraries, Poland wrote, serve more users in tighter spaces, and their patrons tend to be less wealthy and unemployed or underemployed to a greater degree. The upshot: It isn’t fair for large, relatively rich libraries to get even more money when small, needy libraries might get less.

The FCC has set a floor so that every library, regardless of size, will get at least $6,000 a year from the pool of money dedicated to WiFi. But libraries such as Hartford’s are asking the FCC to either raise the square-footage rate to $4 or to adopt a formula that pays $150 per visitor per year.

The American Library Association, which has been working with the FCC to craft a formula, says the final dollar figure for the square-footage mechanism could still change. An FCC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, confirmed that the discussions continue and that the agency is evaluating the libraries’ proposals. But the agency is committed to measuring funding by square footage because that is one of the easiest ways to compare otherwise different libraries in different regions.

“From our perspective, square footage is the formula that captures how libraries actually design their networks, and it’s a number that’s readily available,” said Marijke Visser, the library association’s assistant director for IT policy.

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