Stepping Up

Making broadband more than a library issue
Live Oak, FL
Sherry Millington

Rural libraries that provide technology resources for their communities serve a vital purpose, but they typically take on an entirely new set of difficulties. Even with the added struggles, many rural libraries are stepping up to the plate and offering essential technology services for their community members.

One librarian who's gracefully overcome some of these issues and become a key player in her community's broadband efforts is Sherry Millington, technical services coordinator at Suwannee River Regional Library. When we last spoke with Millington, she told us she'd successfully implemented a triage system in her library to resolve technology-related issues across the library system's eight branch locations. Since there aren't technical staff at any of the branches, the triage system prevents Millington from spending all her time on the road between the libraries, which are spread across three counties.

We caught up with Millington recently to discover what she's been up to and learn if she'd come up with more strategies to deal with technology-related issues. It's been several years since we first talked to Millington, and her library's computing resources have grown slightly to 115 public computers. Keeping these PCs up to date has presented some minor issues, but the biggest problem she's dealing with now is a common one among rural libraries: lack of bandwidth.


Beyond the limits of bandwidth

A library on a tight budget might try to optimize its bandwidth by better utilizing existing networking hardware and tweaking network settings. A library with enough money for additional bandwidth might simply purchase more. Millington has done both, but it still isn't enough.

Being in a rural area we just don't have the availability of different providers with large amounts of bandwidth," Millington said.

She's maxed out the available bandwidth at every one of Suwannee River Regional Library's branches, but this has proven insufficient for their needs.

If not for smart planning on Millington's part, their bandwidth issues could be worse. All of Suwannee River's Regional Library branches have open wireless networks, which could be bandwidth hogs if not properly managed by technical staff. But Millington opted for an even easier solution — placing the wireless networks on a separate, dedicated connection.

"The main reason that we started out that way was because of our networking equipment being older. We didn't want to run into the problem of having to try to figure out how to separate the two networks and know that we were secure with our library automation system on our wired network," Millington said. "So we just opted for a separate line. And then as the bandwidth has become more of an issue it's actually better because we're not eating into our bandwidth for our wired computers."

Millington said the wireless networks in all the libraries see a lot of use, by not only regular patrons but travelers and students. The library's E-Rate funding effectively provides an 80% discount on bandwidth, which makes a separate line feasible. That said, even a separate line for wireless is not a permanent solution for insufficient bandwidth.

Bridging the Middle Mile

Millington had done everything possible at her library to increase bandwidth in her region, but she wasn't going to settle for the possibility that the problem could be solved by someone else. She heard Suwannee County had been asked by the North Florida Economic Development Council to participate in the North Florida Broadband Authority, a group which received a $30 million federal grant under the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The authority tasked itself with creating a Middle Mile broadband infrastructure to bring extremely large bandwidth throughout the North Florida rural area.

I think that over the last 5 or 6 years especially, counties and cities have become more aware of the need for networking within the government structures and the need to provide bandwidth for incoming businesses," Millington said. "It's a big issue here for economic development to be able to offer that kind of a service for people who are looking to locate here."

When it came time to pick the board members for the authority, Suwannee County realized it didn't have a single "technology person" among county employees, so Millington stepped up to serve on the board — originally as an alternate, later an executive member. The board has a member from each of the 15 counties and 8 municipalities it represents, and Millington is unsurprisingly the only librarian among its members.

By serving on this board, Millington has been kept abreast of important technology and economic issues in her region, and kept the library "at the table" in planning efforts. She says the authority might begin offering broadband services as early as late summer or fall of 2011, in some locations. While her library will be able to take advantage of these services to increase its bandwidth, the effect on the region as a whole is even more profound.

"It's been very much touted throughout the area for economic development as a benefit to anchor institutions such as hospitals and schools and libraries," Millington said. "Even just normal people living out in the middle of nowhere who still have dialup, they really have some hope that they're going get broadband."

You can read more about BTOP library grant projects on the TechSoup for Libraries blog and our website, Broadband: Stories from the Field.