Why Libraries Need High Speed Internet

During COVID-19, high-speed internet is a life-line — that millions of Americans lack. Libraries need high-speed internet to better serve communities. Lack of internet access in some communities has been a problem since the explosion of the internet. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, lack of internet access is creating wider gaps between those with access, and those without. 

It means the difference between students being able to get an education, or not.

Workers being able to maintain their jobs, or not. 

People being able to access social services and health information, or not. 

This pandemic is highlighting and exacerbating inequalities that have always been a problem. One in which public libraries are on the front lines of service. The need for internet connection now is critical. 

The ability to connect to the Internet has been recognized in a number of countries as a human right, or at least as a core public interest utility. Internet access is considered a platform in which an individual can access the tools and skills necessary to improve their lives and participate in the economy and access government. In coronavirus times, it also means it’s how we go to school and work. 

Now with social distancing measures in effect for the workplace and schools, access to the internet is absolutely necessary, yet according to FCC reports, 24 million people in the U.S. don’t have broadband internet access. 

There is a solution – make sure all public libraries have high-speed internet. 

Libraries need high-speed internet because the demand for access is increasing and needs to be met with enough bandwidth to support it. 

Although libraries report increases in their connection speeds, they continue to report that their connection speeds are insufficient to meet patron needs some or all of the time. This is of critical importance, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is changing the nature of work. Currently, 77 percent of the workforce is working remotely at least one day a week. And school districts are extending remote learning into the fall semester as the pandemic is uncontrolled in many areas. 

Lack of connectivity disproportionately affects vulnerable and rural populations. Right now, 45 percent of low-income families and approximately a quarter of rural communities do not have access to broadband. These communities often rely on the public library as their primary source of internet. Yet this study shows that rural libraries have the slowest internet connection speeds. So when schools are closed and the classroom moves online, libraries need to have the bandwidth to accommodate patron needs. 

Libraries Move Their Programming Online

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. While nothing can replace the real-world library experience, libraries have done a good job adapting to continue to serve communities. 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. Since it seems many areas will continue to operate this way, library staff need high-speed internet just to be able to continue to provide these online services. 

The homework gap expands

Twelve million school children don’t have sufficient internet access at home to finish class assignments. The digital divide expands and creates a phenomenon called the homework gap. Now that schools are doing remote learning instead of in-person instruction, this means the kids without reliable internet are receiving little to no instruction at all. This could have negative implications for years to come and perhaps create a generational problem. 

While there are other factors to consider, such as access to transportation or adult involvement in children’s education, the public libraries in all communities need to be able to handle the increased stress of the coronavirus reality. This helps the community stay afloat while we work as a nation to close the digital divide. 

The coronavirus has made the disparity in access glaringly obvious. It’s not something we can ignore.  High-speed internet access is no longer a privilege, it’s a necessity, and many Americans are lacking. Right now, public libraries are on the front lines. They’re in a position to be able to adjust and adapt, relatively quickly, and provide this service to the communities. 

Many libraries have already adopted drive-in WiFi and created accommodations for patrons to access the internet while social distancing. We can lessen the blow to the most vulnerable communities during this time of crisis by equipping all public libraries with high-speed internet. It’s the most centralized, quickest way to help more people get internet access.

Public libraries provide access to technology and a safe space to learn and work.

In areas where communities rely on the library for internet access, many people also lack the proper technology to complete work, homework, or other tasks. Applying for jobs, watching school videos and completing assignments, or applying for social benefits requires more than just a smartphone. Libraries have always been a place where school children without home computers can do homework and get online. Now that many more people in the community need to use the library services and WiFi to file unemployment claims, make doctors’ appointments, attend telehealth appointments, and other necessary tasks, the load on the library WiFi is increasing. 

Many jobs require online applications. Government agencies also increasingly require individuals to go online for critical services and resources. To meet this growing community demand, public libraries require reliable, affordable, and high-quality internet access.

Some libraries are now opening in phases and offering access to computers and printers in a limited capacity to adhere to social distancing guidelines. This is something to consider as libraries navigate the next phase of library service. 

Remote work is here to stay

Even before the pandemic, remote work was on the rise, with more than one-third of the U.S population doing remote work. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimates that 37 percent of the workforce can be entirely remote since their jobs don’t require operating equipment or being face-to-face with customers, like the service industry or medical jobs. 

Freelancers, contractors, and remote workers of all kinds could benefit from using a workspace that is outside of the home. Many households now have both partners working from home while also caring for kids, which is challenging. Having space to work outside of the home could relieve some of the pressure. 

Planning for the post-COVID future needs to include a library WiFi strategy.

We’re now six months into the COVID crisis and the data is clear that social distancing measures will be in place for the foreseeable future. Many schools across the country have already made the decision to do online learning for the first semester.  Access to high-speed, reliable internet is a critical component for students and workers right now. Equipping our libraries with the bandwidth needed to meet this increased need can help relieve the pressure on communities and individuals and help students and workers be successful. Creating a broadband structure in every city and town is a big undertaking, and we need access now. Libraries are already in a position to be able to offer this. 

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