Connecting the Last Mile: Libraries Find Innovative Solutions for Broadband Access

Lack of reliable broadband access has long posed challenges for many rural communities. As the pandemic ramps up the need, libraries continue to help with innovative solutions.

In Pottsboro, TX, locals have a few different options for broadband service. AT&T has DSL plans, Rise Broadband offers fixed wireless, or Viasat and HughesNet offer satellite internet. Cable plans are available through Sparklight and Vyve Broadband, although both providers’ networks don’t reach hundreds of homes in the small town.

Yet broadband access “is difficult for people in Pottsboro,” Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (PAL), tells LJ. “In many areas, the infrastructure does not exist. The only service people could get would be satellite. Even cell signals for Wi-Fi hotspots are difficult to use in some places.”

It’s a common challenge that rural libraries throughout the United States (U.S.) have been working to address for years. In its 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated that over 31 percent of rural Americans did not have access to broadband services at home (defined by the agency as 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds).

The agency’s most recent report, released in April 2020, painted a much rosier picture, claiming that, since 2017, there has been an 85 percent increase in access to broadband for Americans living in rural areas. But FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel begged to differ, issuing a scathing dissent that began by describing the report as “baffling.” She argues that the report’s conclusion—that only 18 million people in the U.S. now lack access to broadband—“wildly understates the extent of the digital divide in this country.”

In determining broadband availability, the FCC continues to rely on information submitted by commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) “without a system to independently verify the data,” Rosenworcel adds. And “if a broadband provider tells the FCC that it can offer service to a single customer in a census block, the agency assumes that service is available throughout. The result is data that systematically overstates service across the country. Other studies have shown that the true number of people [in the U.S.] without broadband access is 42 million or even as high as 162 million.”

SENDING A CLEAR SIGNAL (Top) A TV White Space base station broadcasts the Beatrice Public Library’s broadband signal. (Below) The Southern Oklahoma Library System recently outfitted its bookmobile with Wi-Fi access, laptops, and other materials.

 

DEFINING THE PROBLEM

So there is disagreement, even within the FCC, about the scale of the national broadband access challenge in rural communities. Connery, however, just wanted more clarity about the situation in Pottsboro. On advice from the Tocker Foundation, she recently got in touch with Connected Nation, an organization dedicated to expanding broadband access and bridging the digital divide. Connected Nation sent field engineers to Pottsboro to map broadband access at the street level. In conjunction with the project, a group of students from the University of Michigan’s (UM) Master of Science in Information program have been working on an overlay map that will use Connected Nation’s data to “take a true picture” of broadband availability in Pottsboro, Connery said. A key component of their project involves detailed “storytelling” profiles of individual households.

With remote learning instituted during the COVID pandemic, the project has surfaced several stories with an all-too-common theme. Schools are instituting remote learning, but many children’s homes don’t have access to terrestrial broadband. In many cases, even when Wi-Fi hotspots are provided by schools, the signals are too weak or spotty to work with applications such as live video. Connery believes that documenting these stories will help explain the need for expanded access to stakeholders such as politicians, funding bodies, and even people within the community.

“It’s probably been two years ago, but we had a community town hall meeting, and the city was drawing up a vision plan,” Connery says. “One of the top issues that came up was internet access, and even among the 100 people at the meeting, there was not agreement on whether there was even a problem. There’s so little understanding. In a rural area, one house on a street may get a decent connection, and two doors down, they can’t get any connection at all.”

Offering specific examples about individual households may help raise awareness. “When you start talking about spectrums and broadband and [technological] details, so many people…just glaze over,” she says. “They may kind of understand the bigger picture, but if you can say ‘here is a real person, and this is how a lack of access impacts their life,’ I think that brings in a lot more interest.” At press time, the UM students were putting together a tutorial about the project that could help other rural libraries replicate it, possibly in partnership with a regional MLIS program.

 

BROAD COLLABORATION

In the meantime, PAL has offered locals a variety of services with its broadband connection, in addition to public access to computers, high-speed Wi-Fi, and a room for online meetings. In 2019, the library received a $50,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to launch a scholastic esports program for Pottsboro High School and nearby Austin College. The funding enabled the library to upgrade its broadband connection from 18 Mbps to 500 Mbps and purchase 10 high-end computers. In addition, the program has led to collaboration between the college, the high school, and the library; funded the hire of a part-time project manager; and increased evening operating hours.

And most recently, the library received a $20,000 COVID-19 Health Information Outreach Award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NLM) to develop a telehealth program in consultation with NLM and the University of North Texas Health Science Center. As the program develops, officials from the Texas Library Association have been participating in calls and meetings, with the goal of helping other rural Texas libraries develop similar programs.

Facilitating one-on-one online meetings between doctors and their patients answers a vital need in the community. “In rural areas, one of the reasons people leave as they age is that they need more visits with healthcare providers…. They have to move to the city,” Connery explains. “We could actually impact people aging in place by providing access to those healthcare providers.” Another goal of the program will be community healthcare education. “If people have issues and they need credible resources, libraries are the information specialists. If someone is diagnosed with diabetes [for example], we can connect them with the resources they need.”

 

SIGNAL BOOST

For rural libraries looking for a way to provide reliable Wi-Fi access points throughout their community, one relatively new technology is demonstrating a lot of promise. The San José State University (SJSU) School of Information, in partnership with the Gigabit Libraries Network, has explored the use of TV White Space (TVWS) to extend the range of rural libraries’ broadband access into their surrounding communities through the Libraries Whitespace Project.

TVWS utilizes unused portions of the radio spectrum that traditionally have been allocated to television broadcasters—the “static” between channels on old antenna-based televisions. An omnidirectional TVWS base station antenna is mounted on the roof of a library building and connected to the library’s broadband signal. Remote client radios—which can receive the base station signal typically within a six-mile radius—are then installed and connected to Wi-Fi routers in locations around the town, such as community centers, parks, local clinics, or public buildings. The remote client radios are the size of a toaster and easy to move, making it possible for the library to provide emergency connections following natural disasters or provide free Wi-Fi at special events such as town fairs or farmers markets.

Prices can vary by project, but Kristen Rebmann, SJSU associate professor and codirector of the Libraries Whitespace Project, says she is working with a library in Minnesota (still in the exploratory phase), which was recently given a quote of $9,000 to $13,000 for three base stations and five remote client radios.

The project has been closely involved with TVWS installations at the Millinocket Memorial Library, ME; the Twin Lakes Library System in Milledgeville, GA; the Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, PA; and the Beatrice Public Library, NE, all of which have been successful, although Rebmann noted that there can be a few challenges. In Beatrice, a receiver placed to provide Wi-Fi access at a park was struck by lightning and had to be replaced. Some areas may have too much “noise” in local white space bands, making TVWS an unfeasible solution. (In those cases, Rebmann notes that line of sight radio signals can be used to expand library Wi-Fi to receivers in a building’s immediate vicinity.)

And “people power is always an issue with these types of projects,” Rebmann says. “In Maine, they had a really highly skilled volunteer—a retired engineer—who helped them deploy their network. He did such a good job that it caught the attention of a tech company, and he left retirement and took his career in a new direction. That was fabulous, but I think there was a skills gap after that.” However, the equipment is generally stable and easy to maintain once a network is set up, Rebmann says.

 

TAKING IT ON THE ROAD

As many libraries have done during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southern Oklahoma Library System (SOLS) in November launched a “digital bookmobile” service to reach patrons who were unable to visit a branch. Funded by a $12,100 digital inclusion grant administered by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries as part of the national Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020, SOLS outfitted its existing bookmobile van with Wi-Fi access, laptops, and materials for checkout. SOLS also offers Wi-Fi hotspots for checkout, but the devices are popular, so there is often a waiting list.

“As you get into our rural access areas, the countryside, the broadband is not very strong,” Gail Oehler, executive director of SOLS, tells LJ. “We also have a lot of people who can’t afford [broadband] access. So the library made it our mission to bridge the divide.”

SOLS serves five counties with eight branches, but Oehler explains that the service areas are very large. “Atoka county covers more than 900 square miles, but we only have one library in that entire county. If you don’t live in town, it can be a really long drive.”

SOLS applied for the grant in the summer of 2020, and after receiving the money, it took a few weeks to get the van outfitted and to determine the best routes and stops for the service, including factors such as signal strength in different areas. Local officials were then approached to get permission for the van to park and provide public services in different locations. “You have to get [town leaders] to buy in as well,” Oehler says.

Now, the digital bookmobile heads out every Friday with two librarians, making a handful of regular stops where locals can sign up for a library card, use Wi-Fi to turn in homework, apply for jobs, use online library resources, or ask the librarians for help with any information needs. At press time, SOLS was considering having the librarians conduct story times or other activities for children whose schools have been closed.

 

FUTURE CONNECTIONS

As Commissioner Rosenworcel contends, the FCC has relied too heavily on broadband availability data provided by commercial ISPs without independently verifying the data. Fortunately, the U.S. government has begun to address this issue.

In August 2019, the FCC established its Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC) initiative, which will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from ISPs, and utilize a crowd-sourcing portal to gather input on the accuracy of these maps from state, local, and tribal governments, as well as consumers. Then, in March 2020, the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act was signed into law, essentially holding the FCC to many of the promises made in the DODC. It creates a process allowing the public to participate in data collection, enables consumers and local governments to challenge FCC maps with their own data, and strengthens enforcement against ISPs that knowingly submit inaccurate broadband availability data to the FCC. Local mapping projects, such as the one recently completed by Pottsboro Area Library, could have a significant impact on rural communities within the structure of these new rules.

In other positive developments, in January 2020 the FCC established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will direct up to $20.4 billion over the next 10 years to financing up to gigabit speed broadband networks in rural areas. In the first phase of the program, up to $16 billion of the funds will be made available to census blocks where there is no 25/3 Mbps service available, impacting about six million rural households and businesses, according to preliminary FCC estimates. Phase II will direct at least $4.4 billion to census blocks that are at least partially served by 25/3 Mbps broadband, according to DODC maps.

As other FCC programs such as E-Rate have demonstrated, federal funding is crucial to building out “last mile” networks in lightly populated areas that commercial ISPs do not view as profitable. For example, by providing $3.9 million of $4.2 million total costs, E-Rate made it possible for the Middle Rio Grande Pueblo Tribal Consortium and Jemez and Zia Pueblo Tribal Consortium in New Mexico to lay 60 miles of fiber optic cable, connecting six tribal libraries and two charter schools to the University of New Mexico’s Albuquerque GigaPoP network, providing the tribes with affordable broadband access.

Whether it’s a major infrastructure upgrade like this fiber optic network, or a grant-funded bookmobile, rural libraries can help their communities by being ready to explain local needs and discuss the impact that improved broadband access would have.

“Innovation is important,” Connery says. “A lot of the funders we deal with want to see a new role for libraries…. People want to be part of something positive and exciting that’s making change. That’s not only when you’re writing grants, that’s also when you’re talking to board members and volunteers…. Rural libraries are positioned so well to do interesting things.” 

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Matt Enis

menis@mediasourceinc.com

@MatthewEnis

Matt Enis (matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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