Broadband provision in remote communities can often be logistically challenging and expensive. Targeted grants are one way to address the access barriers faced by rural communities. Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) provides grants to support the establishment of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. A library in Montana and a non-profit organization in New Mexico are using the BTOP grant money to fund unique ways to reach out to remote areas.
Missoula Public Library (MPL) is among the 42 public libraries in Montana that received a U.S. Department of Commerce grant totaling $1.8 million dollars in 2010. Although MPL is located in the second largest city in Montana, it serves surrounding areas that are both rural and remote. Several communities have no Internet access, and a high unemployment rate means that many people cannot afford computers or the relatively high cost of rural Internet access. Until recently, library service in remote areas had been limited to mail delivery of books and materials.
This lack of community resources, combined with a scarcity of Internet providers and a steady flow of tourists, results in MPL’s great demand for computers and Internet access. The library has 27 public computers, but according to Library Director Honore Bray, it is "completely out of space" and has no room for more. The BTOP grant provides a means to enhance MPL’s public computing. The grant will fund 10 laptop computers for check out and use within the library and its branches. But the grant will also support a mobile motor home hosting eight computers that will provide greater access to people in rural and remote areas. Every two weeks, the mobile motor home will visit rural schools in two to four communities in a different area of the county.
In addition, MPL will use the matching fund money (required by the grant) to fund a reference librarian and circulation assistant for the mobile motor home. Students will be able to use its computers and take courses similar to those currently offered in the library (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, and Publisher; Digital Photography; Social Networking tools) and specific topics of interest to the individual communities. According to Assistant Director Elizabeth Jonkel, staff will “take their cue from the communities” when determining needs.
Engaging and Responsive Training Models
Engaging training models are another way to reach out to remote communities. Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship (GCCE), a non-profit organization in New Mexico with a mission to "foster an environment in which cultural entrepreneurs can successfully scale their cultural enterprises," provides one such example.
New Mexico ranks 36th in the nation for availability of broadband telecommunications and 46th in the nation for percentage of the population that uses the Internet. The Fast Forward New Mexico Project, funded in part by the BTOP grant, aims to address these shortcomings. The New Mexico State Library is the lead on the grant and the GCCE is one of its three subcontractors, along with the University of New Mexico Continuing Education Campus and the University of New Mexico Los Alamos Campus.
According to Alice Loy, co-founder of the GCCE, two of the grant’s main goals are to raise New Mexico’s rate of broadband subscriptions, especially among geographically, economically, or culturally marginalized communities, and to offer training on Web 2.0 technologies to remote community members in an effort to increase comfort and access levels. Ms. Loy believes that while technology can be used to empower, uneven access to resources simply helps keep hierarchies in place.
As part of these efforts to empower the community, GCCE is working on developing training with 17 public libraries. By October 2010, they had developed a curriculum and tested it out with approximately 300 patrons in two of the libraries they serve. GCCE plans to roll the curriculum out to nine additional libraries by late spring of 2011, and have all 17 libraries involved by the end of 2011. In order to truly be responsive to their communities, trainings have and will continue to be offered in English, Spanish, and Diné (Navajo).
To ensure that the project connects with its targeted audience in remote areas, GCCE has made it a priority to find trainers from the community who have both sophisticated technical expertise but also a creative, engaging teaching style that can adapt to students with varying literacy and computer skills. As Ms. Loy explains,
I see [the computer] as a social tool, not a machine.” She adds that before staff can attempt distance learning, they will provide training in an "old school social way," which means actually being in the same room with trainees.
Thinking Differently in Remote Areas
Although GCCE and MPL face challenges associated with serving remote areas, the BTOP grant has allowed them to develop unique solutions that other non-profits and libraries might consider adopting. As Ms. Bray described, the new model funded with BTOP grant money is “exciting… because I always wondered how we could ever afford to get services out to the far-reaching corners of the community.”