Broadband Planning and E-rate for Libraries: Enough Is Never Enough

Broadband sign

Does your library have enough broadband to meet the needs of patrons and staff? Technology use in libraries is at an all-time high. Without enough bandwidth coming into the library, patrons are unable to stay connected, and staff productivity is blocked. How can libraries plan for the future when it comes to broadband? And how can libraries leverage the E-rate program to increase bandwidth and the availability of high-speed Internet?

At our October webinar, we received E-rate advice and practical broadband planning tips from Amber Gregory (Arkansas State Library) and Emily Almond (Georgia Public Library Service).

As Emily said in her presentation: "Broadband is part of what makes libraries a beacon in our society.  Our mission is to provide access to everyone, regardless. We can't do that without broadband."

Here are Emily and Amber's tips for increasing the availability of high-speed Internet for your library.

Broadband Planning 101

Emily shared several key steps for making a plan to increase the available bandwidth in your library and for getting the best price and service possible.

  • Size up your situation: Think about the broadband you currently have, and then think about what you will need. Set your goals high because you will need it eventually.
  • Conduct an environmental scan: Research what options exist, especially Internet service providers (ISPs) that provide broadband for businesses. In rural or remote areas, there may not be a commercial provider, but there may be other institutions (universities, businesses) that are willing to share their direct connection.
  • Find the best approach for your library: Look at all of the options; then compare speed, management, security, cost, and scalability.
  • Identify the players: There are politics involved with the broadband sellers and community leaders who may have a stake in the process. Ask around and try to think of all the community players who might be involved.
  • Get buy-in from stakeholders: Document your plan and share it with those you need buy-in from and those who will help you navigate the process.
  • Use RFPs and vendor assessments: Keep requests for proposals simple when possible, focusing on how the vendors will get the work done and at what cost. Assess your vendors on technical, functional, and business services. Create a project roadmap to help stay on track.
  • Don't forget the money: Funds come from a mix of E-rate (more on that below), state, and local levels.  

E-rate in a Nutshell

Why should libraries care about E-rate? As Amber put it:

"There is $3.9 billion in available funds, but you have to apply to get your share. The FCC and USAC are committed to increasing opportunities for libraries to increase broadband capacity, and the E-rate program is one powerful tool to do so."

Amber explained that E-rate is a program through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that allows for libraries and schools to receive discounts on telecommunications and information services. Through this program, libraries can receive discounts on Internet access, some network equipment and wiring, and their phone bills.

Discounts Available through E-rate

E-rate discounts for Internet connections to the library (Category 1) are based on the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program and range from 20 to 90 percent. Equipment funding (Category 2) is based on the square footage of the library.

Table of e-rate discounts

E-rate and CIPA

Amber emphasized that libraries need to be compliant with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in order to receive E-rate funding. CIPA requires that you filter images for adults and minors that are obscene or contain child pornography.  It also requires that minors' access to images that are "harmful to minors" be blocked. Filtering is a local decision, and the FCC allows for significant latitude in how libraries choose to filter as long as the specific requirements are followed.

Getting Started

You can visit the Library E-rate Clearinghouse for more information. Visit the E-rate Productivity Center to access all forms, submit requests, and check on application status.

E-rate can be complicated to navigate. However, Amber noted: "Many stakeholders are on your side and committed to navigating the muddy waters between policy and practice. Don't be afraid to ask for help — there are lots of people out there to help you."

Learn More

This post provides only a brief overview of the information Emily and Amber shared about broadband planning and E-rate. Watch the entire webinar to learn more!

About the Author

Crystal is a librarian and trainer with a passion for program design and digital literacy. She has worked on training projects with the Colorado State Library, Infopeople, the Urban Libraries Council, and the Public Library Association. In addition to her work at TechSoup, she is the founder of Kixal, where she creates transformative training experiences for libraries and nonprofits.

Image 1: Gavin St. Ours / CC-BY

Image 2: Universal Service Administrative Company 

Image 3: Crystal Schimpf