Making the jump to lightspeed: E-rate 2.0


In the halcyon days of 1996, a few visionaries in our Congress (including our very own Olympia Snowe) shaped the law that would found the Universal Service Fund, enabling schools and libraries to receive broadband Internet access at reasonable rates for their areas. Soon after that, MSLN was created to network schools and libraries throughout Maine, and now makes high-speed Internet connectivity a reality for nearly 1000 schools and libraries.

These days, we’re presented with a challenge very similar to that of 1996. What “high-speed” meant back then is very different from what it means in 2013. Moreover, both the demand for data and the raw amount of data available have increased by orders of magnitude, making it increasingly difficult for schools and libraries to be able to operate off on a connection that would have been considered overkill nearly 20 years ago. Streaming HD video to a single classroom or having a few users downloading large files might consume almost all the available bandwidth for an entire school or library, reducing it to the equivalent of a dial-up connection by 1996 standards.

This is why the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation recently convened a hearing on E-rate 2.0 (begins at 33:44). During the hearing, several witnesses (again, with Maine leading the charge by way of Linda Lord, State Librarian on the witness panel) bore very compelling testimony to the committee for the desperate (and growing) need to revitalize E-rate. This implies a great deal more funding (seeing as the original funding cap has already been reached for basic telephone and internet service), and will likely include many other changes to the application process.

What does this mean for libraries? First, fiber. Fiberoptic connectivity is much faster, as it relies on pulses of light for communication rather than electrical conductivity along long copper wires. This means truly achieving “light-speed Internet”, on the order of gigabits instead of megabits. Even one gigabit per second may be enough for the next ten years. This means libraries will need to take a serious look at their own infrastructure, such as their network backbones, so that they could benefit from this capacity.

It will also mean a serious look at the wireless networks offered by libraries. To move high-quality video from the Internet to a smartphone user in a library, every step of the way must be able to handle that sort of volume. For many libraries, having a gigabit connection may be like having a fire hydrant with a hose the thickness of a straw. E-rate 2.0 will hopefully change to allow schools and libraries needing to upgrade their wireless access points and controllers to receive reimbursement with few hurdles, but it requires some thinking ahead to be ready if and when the E-rate program should be ready to deliver.

Also, high-speed Internet can mean an end to telephones as carried by copper; VoIP may well become the standard method for carrying and managing telephone calls. Now that the technology is widely-used and regarded as solid (certainly solid enough for most consumers), it may simply be a matter of time before libraries will need to seriously consider the question of converting to VoIP.

Is your library ready for E-rate 2.0?