The Killing Joke: We Debate Broadband Access Definitions as Library Hours Plummet

"Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says 'Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.' Man bursts into tears. Says 'But, doctor...I am Pagliacci.'" - Rorchach's Journal, Oct. 16th, 1985. 

It seems terribly cruel to debate the potential malignancy of a mole located on a severed hand. At present, two camps are arguing over the rapidity of the spread of broadband, while ignoring a nationwide rollback of potential Internet access for the nation's poorest communities. This would be funny if only it weren't so sad. 

The Federal Communications Commission recently released the latest report on Broadband Deployment in the United States. In a change from previous reports, the FCC upgraded the standard for “broadband” from 200kbs to 4mbs and focused on subscriber counts rather than overall availability. Due in part to these new tallying techniques, the FCC essentially gave the US a failing grade: "broadband remains unavailable to approximately 14 to 24 million Americans." Predictably, Industry reps claim that the report’s conclusion is offbase. Cue the political bickering.

The Republican minority argues that the standard for broadband is far too high, that this amounts to an attempt to fudge the numbers and falsely deny broadband's teleological progression. Democrats respond that previous procedures, such as considering an area covered if it housed a single subscriber, understated the problem.

All this makes for good political theater. But it misses the point. The prevalence of broadband-capable infrastructure is unimportant, so long as a main method of Internet exposure is dying. Dwindling library access, rather than stagnant Broadband penetration, is a far larger threat to the nation’s Internet access. 

Libraries provide the only free Internet access for most poor communities. Individuals without a computer or home Internet connection rely on libraries for assistance in job searching, networking, and e-governance. Of course these needs have become all the more acute during the recession, as individuals are laid off and can no longer afford home access

But libraries, especially those in urban centers, simply do not have the capital to continue operating on a daily basis. The ALA reports that in the 2009 national survey of public libraries, one quarter of urban libraries and 14.5 percent of all libraries decreased operating hours. This means that approximately 2,400 public libraries lost hours.

Let’s focus on some of the more high profile amputations, all of which have occurred in the last month:

- The Los Angeles public library and its 72 branches, as of July 18th, are no longer open on Sunday or Monday. Adding insult to injury, the city decided not to push for a revenue measure because of the high cost of putting the matter to vote.

- Charlotte's Mecklenburg County Library system reduced the hours of 21 libraries, with most open only four days a week.

- Brooklyn Public Library reduced the hours of 60 branches, with the great majority going to a five-day only schedule.

Santa Barbara, Wheaton, Trenton, Tempe, and Mount Laurel libraries are similarly afflicted.  I would also add Boston Public Library to this list, as four branches are slated to close and 68 employees to be laid off, but there is a slim chance the axe won't fall until winter. (Note: As should be obvious from the articles above, if these libraries are not forced to close, the solution will involve laying off a great number of employees to make up the shortfall.)

So to sum up: Libraries are the sole means of accessing the Internet for a significant portion of our population. While some politicians have the gall to argue that "[b]roadband infrastructure deployment and investment are a remarkable and continuing success story," our libraries are slicing their hours or shutting completely. Let's not argue whether or not five percent of users don't have access to broadband capable infrastructure. Instead, let's focus on the tens of millions of Americans who are gradually losing their only avenue to a wealth of online resources. 

(Andrew Moshirnia is a rising third year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP blogger. He leaves his editor at the foot of this post; one always finds one's burden again.)


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