Libraries Can Improve Patron Experience By Expanding Digital Services Using E-Rate Funding

According to FCC reports, 24 million people in the U.S. lack broadband internet access. In the coronavirus times, the need for internet access is more important than ever. So how can libraries maximize their resources to improve the patron experience? The FCC’s E-Rate funding is one solution.

The E-Rate program makes telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries. The ongoing proliferation of innovative digital learning technologies and the need to connect students, teachers, and workers to jobs, education, social services, and information has led to increased demand for bandwidth. 

COVID-19 and expanding digital services using E-rate funding for libraries

The IMLS is distributing $30 milling in funding to libraries across the U.S. as part of the CARES Act in response to the impact of COVID-19. States will be able to use the funds to expand digital network access, purchase internet accessible devices, and provide technical support services to citizens to address digital inclusion efforts. Rural schools and libraries may also receive more funds to get the internet. It’s worth noting that rural service areas have the highest percentage patron use of library WiFi, according to our national data

How can WiFi insights support your library’s need for E-Rate funding? 

Our library partners use WiFi analytics as a way to accurately count WiFi sessions, both for PLS reporting and internal library advocacy.  They’ve also used the insights for program selection and layout changes.  

Now due to COVID-19, libraries are adjusting how they serve patrons.  Many libraries made WiFi accessible 24/7, which was later an official recommendation from the ALA. This was a smart move and allowed our partner libraries to understand how their patrons were using the service. WiFi analytics showed there was continued activity even though libraries were closed to the public. What this told us was that patrons still needed to use the library for WiFi access. But now instead of being inside the building they were sitting outside, in the parking lot, and using after hours. Understanding how and when patrons are using a service is key to making sure libraries are equipped to continue and expand this service. 

What can we learn from WiFi insights in the time of coronavirus? 

Let’s start with what we know. We know that patrons are continuing to use library WiFi services. We know there is an increased demand for internet access since many schools and jobs have moved online. We know that millions of Americans lack sufficient internet at home. And we know that the library is often their primary source of internet. 

According to a Public Library Association (PLA) survey, 98% of respondents reported their buildings were closed to the public but staff continued to expand digital products and launch virtual programs. Creative ideas keep communities connected – like offering “drive-in WiFi”, expanding digital access, moving adult and children’s programming to an online format, and offering all kinds of digital resources. It seems like this will be the norm for the foreseeable future, so libraries need the bandwidth to support the increased patron need and their own programming. This is how E-Rate funding can help libraries improve the patron experience. 

How to apply for E-rate funding for libraries

Applying for E-rate funding can seem complicated, especially if it’s your first experience with the application process. If you’re a public library applying for E-rate funding, here’s what you need to know about the application process. 

Who runs the E-rate funding program? 

According to the FCC website, the E-rate program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the direction of the FCC. USAC is responsible for processing the applications for support, confirming eligibility, and reimbursing service providers and eligible schools and libraries for the discounted services. USAC also ensures that the applicants and service providers comply with the E-rate rules and procedures established by the Commission.

Where do I fill out the E-rate funding application for my library?

The USAC website has a step-by-step guide to follow. It also outlines the process for applicants and providers so you have a full understanding of how the system works. On the USAC website, there is a ‘Get Started’ web page that details your next steps. You will need to set up an account on the E-rate Productivity Center (EPC) to fill out your application through this application management portal. There are also E-rate consultants that can help you apply for funding such as Funds for Learning that can help guide you through the process as well.

How does a library WiFi strategy help with planning for the post-COVID future?

Creating and implementing systems to meet community needs during a crisis will carry forward in positive ways in the future. Public libraries will be even more well-positioned to lead the way in bridging the digital divide. Libraries will have a game plan for the next crisis and the tools necessary to respond quickly.  Public libraries will continue to provide a valuable and necessary service to everyone by being thought leaders, community advocates, and coming up with creative solutions. 

Want to know more about WiFi insights for your library? Book a demo today!