Libraries Lobby to Become Broadband Hubs

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Representing 58,000 members, the American Library Association (ALA) asked the FCC last month to ensure public WiFi access despite library closures. In a letter, ALA urged the Commission “to use its authority to immediately address the crisis-driven digital divide caused by work and school closures and social-distancing requirements.”

Of greatest concern is the E-rate program, designed to help schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband. According to E-rate rules, those receiving funding are subject to audits and investigations to ensure compliance. On April 1, the agency passed an order to lift many of these deadlines, Inside Towers reported. The extra time will remove administrative and compliance burdens on schools and libraries so they can focus on transitioning to remote learning, the FCC said at the time.  

ALA asked the agency to, “clarify that public libraries can allow community access to their WiFi networks without jeopardizing E-rate funding. We’re all familiar with stories of people in the library parking lot after hours using the WiFi, 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.”

ALA further requested the FCC, “clarify that public libraries may use the WiFi 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.”

According to TechDirt, while the FCC permitted public use of WiFi on school or library campuses during COVID-19, the request for extending services beyond physical property went unanswered. Former FCC attorney Gigi Sohn told TechDirt, “the FCC has been telling petitioners that it lacks the authority to allow flexibility in the way E-Rate works.” ALA was waiting for the FCC’s response, according to the account.

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