Libraries Want To Become Broadband Havens During The Pandemic, But Want More Help From The FCC
from the ill-communication dept
For many of the estimated 44 million Americans who lack access to any kind of broadband at home, the nation’s libraries are their only way to get online. And as libraries close up shop to slow the spread of COVID-19, that access is no longer available. That’s why the American Library Association, which represents the country’s 16,557 public libraries, fired off a letter to the FCC (pdf) last week asking if it would be okay if they left their WiFi hotspots operational during the pandemic quarantine.
The nation’s Libraries were apparently worried that the Ajit Pai FCC would penalize them under the FCC’s E-Rate program, which helps subsidize broadband access to rural Americans:
“Clarify that public libraries can allow community access to their Wi-Fi networks without jeopardizing E-rate funding. We?re all familiar with stories of people in the library parking lot after hours using the Wi-Fi, but some libraries may refrain if they believe they must cost-allocate a portion of their capacity to account for usage outside their building walls.”
But the ALA isn’t just interested in ensuring that existing WiFi hotspots remain available to impacted Americans. They’re eager to extend access to American communities wherever possible, including putting WiFi hotspots on bookmobiles to help ensure countless millions of Americans can still access the internet during the crisis. That’s somewhat important given the millions of American kids who currently can’t get online at home:
“Clarify that public libraries may use the Wi-Fi enabled bookmobile or techmobile as a community hotspot without jeopardizing E-rate funding. This would enable them to bring internet access to public locations in communities with a high percentage of families or individuals without home broadband access.”
The ALA?s request came on the heels of similar letters from both the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) and the Education and Library Networks Coalition (EdLiNC). All of these groups had already been concerned given the Trump FCC’s efforts to hamstring the E-rate program in general.
By this week the FCC had issued a statement that only bothered to answer some of these organizations’ questions. The good news: the FCC made it clear that it would not penalize libraries and schools that leave their WiFi hotspots online so that people can still access them on school property:
By this Public Notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau reminds schools and libraries that are closed due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak that they are permitted to allow the general public to use E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi networks while on the school?s campus or library property.
But the FCC effectively ignored the libraries’ request that they be allowed to extend service beyond that. Former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn told me this week that the the FCC has been telling petitioners that it “lacks the authority” to allow flexibility in the way E-Rate works. That’s somewhat amusing given that this FCC has been repeatedly slapped down by the courts for ignoring or violating agency rules when it’s to the benefit of giant media and telecom monopolies.
Like here, when the courts told the FCC it was effectively making things up and ignoring established guidelines to try and kill media consolidation rules. Or here, when the courts told the agency it was again making things up as it rushed to pass the wireless industry’s preferred 5G guidance. Or here when the FCC tried kill modest broadband funding to tribal areas. Or the net neutrality debate, during which the Pai FCC not only repeatedly made up data points, but completely ignored wholesale identity theft and fraud because it benefited their primary agenda: an almost mindless deregulation of entrenched U.S. telecom monopolies.
In all of the above three examples, the FCC was more than happy to twist itself into pretzels when it comes to giving US telecom giants everything they’ve lobbied for, even if it meant bending or outright ignoring the rules. But U.S. libraries request the ability and funding to slightly expand broadband availability during an historic crisis, and the agency suddenly loses all of its appetite for creative policy and going the extra mile.