Ms. Kansas Librarian Goes to Capitol Hill

As I referenced in my earlier notes post, Michael, Patrick and I went down to Capitol Hill for the Broadband for America meeting.

America’s New National Pastime: The Innovative and Competitive Internet Marketplace, Capitol Hill 10 April 2013

I sat through the different presentations, at the same time recalling Jessamyn West’s Without A Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide book, as well as a presentation on digital inequality I had put together for a grad school class a couple of years ago. Not much had changed on the reasons for the digital divide that were in Jessamyn’s book and from information I did on the presentation.

Panelists pushed for continued light regulation of the broadband infrastructure, counter to the requests of net neutrality groups. The panelists finished, and I listened to different staffers, policy analysts, and other members of the audience ask questions.

The questions all seemed to be around the spectrum (frequency) issue. That more spectrum needed to be freed. Fine, but what about the people issue? The access and adoption issues?

I started raising my hand, without a complete question in my hand, and kept getting passed over, partially because I was hidden behind a projector, I think. Finally, the moderator said there was time for one more question. I desperately raised my hand, feeling quite silly. Michael and Patrick finally got the moderator’s attention and I opened my mouth to speak, and the nerves hit.

But I tried to be coherrent. I think I mentioned I was a librarian from Kansas, who while interested in the spectrum issues and other technological issues, what about the relevance and skills reasons for non-adoption of the Internet? And the role libraries were playing in dealing with those issues. And I wondered if the panelists had heard of the EveryoneOn and Connect2Compete programs? I think there were other things I said, but that was the important part.

Three panelists quickly responded to the question. One was obviously aware of the programs I referenced, and knew all about libraries and their important role in this issue (he’d had connections with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at one point), but the other two panelists answers were disappointing and somewhat irrelevant, at least from my perspective of things. (I was honestly giddy at that point the question had been answered and wasn’t fully paying attention to what they were saying.)

Afterward, several people said thank you for the question, and I ended up speaking to a staffer from one of my Senator’s offices about technology policy and technology innovation in Kansas, including the Google Fiber implementation in the Kansas City metro area.

It was an incredible experience and goes to show that if you stay alert, and are willing to jump on opportunities that may seem scary or out of reach or out of your element, and yet take a risk anyway, you never know what will happen.

I noticed a couple of things during the meeting. I hate to bring up gender issues, but I noticed that the panel was all men. I know the tech-industry is still heavily male-dominated, but are there honestly no women experts in broadband Internet policy? It’s an honest question.

And during the question period, until I was able to ask my question, all the askers were men. Again, why was this? I’ve never been to a Hill meeting like this before, obviously, but as an obvious DC and political outsider, even with my undergrad degree in political science, this frankly bothered me, especially on such a current, future, global, economic, and critical issue such as broadband policy.

Finally, libraries DO play a critical role in the continued national broadband policy discussion and implementation.

Libraries are learning centers in their communities for all community members, especially in more rural or lower income areas where broadband access is limited, unaffordable, or not available at all (those areas without broadband access still exist, even near the Google Fiber implementation area in the KC Metro area). Libraries are places where people can learn how to use computers and the Internet, apply for jobs, benefits, legal and government services, research health conditions, take online classes, connect with family and friends, and create content. But all of these activities require broadband access.

And as Dr. Ehrlich stated during his section, “The web has become an avatar of markets. It is a representation of markets. To be in the market of the world is to be on the web. The economic benefit we get from broadband is going to depend on the ubiquity of access to it.”

If communities and citizens are to participate in this world market, they must be on the web, and if citizens are still going to struggle to get connected to the web because they don’t understand why they need to be online, they don’t have access to the technology to be online (don’t own an Internet-enabled device), or they don’t have the skillsets to use the Internet, how are they going to compete in this world market? How can they be reached? The library is usually the one institution present in most communities and neighborhoods in the country, and librarians are already working to help people use the Internet and show them its value in daily life.

I hope the Broadband for America group and other entities working on increasing broadband access in the United States will remember to keep libraries in the conversation. I’m glad I was able to be a part of the larger conversation today.