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Program brings high-speed Internet to rural libraries

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Whether filing their tax returns online, applying for a job or even buying an airline ticket, residents in rural Alaska often depend on computers in public libraries for their online activity.

But with rural Alaska communities often suffering through slow Internet speeds and unreliable connections, performing these sorts of tasks can be a real chore.

The Alaska State Library launched Dec. 15 an $8.2 million project to connect 104 libraries across Alaska, many of them located in underserved rural areas, to faster Internet service.

The program also will provide equipment for video conferencing, various pieces of computer hardware and software, and will fund increased hiring of trained IT specialists to service many of those facilities.

The program is called Alaska OWL: Online With Libraries.

"What studies have found is that broadband deployment in Alaska is very spotty and very poor. And most of the libraries, the public libraries in rural Alaska, have below the minimum (Internet speed) set by the American Library Association," said Linda Thibodeau, director of Alaska Libraries, Archives and Museums with the state Department of Education and Early Development.

For libraries that receive less than 1.5 megabytes-per-second of bandwidth capacity, better Internet connections will be purchased by the Alaska State Library.

The program will allow the State Library to manage individual contracts for all of these libraries, said Glenn Cook, deputy director of the Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums.

David Ongley and Daniel Masoni, directors of public libraries in Barrow and Unalaska, respectively, both said the project will be well-received in their communities.

Internet speeds can make downloading a 10-megabyte file (the size of a few picture-heavy PDF files) a daylong affair in Unalaska, said Masoni, director of a public library in Unalaska.

"My fastest speed I could get, and I hung up and tried back, tried back, was 2 kilobits per second. Two thousand bits per second, on a 10-meg file. You just go home and go to bed, come back tomorrow morning and maybe it's done," he said.

"It's just not fast enough ... to offer us simple, basic things like streaming audio or streaming video," said Ongley, director of the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow.

"So, the whole point of this is that with those kinds of speeds, a lot of Alaskan citizens don't have access to the Internet," Thibodeau said.

Aside from the speed boost they believe they'll get, Ongley and Masoni said they are both looking to apply for video conferencing equipment in their respective communities.

Thibodeau said a bundle of different training programs, including some for public safety officers and firefighters, will utilize the video conferencing equipment to train their employees in remote villages where in-person training is not possible.

Local communities will decide what they want and need from the grant, Thibodeau said.

"So it's not like we're providing a set of particular trainers or educational opportunities and they have to choose from that set. Instead, whatever they want, and whatever they need, they can reach out for and get," Thibodeau said.

Funding for the project comes largely from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which doled out $5.4 million in stimulus funds to the state Department of Education and Early Development.

The federal contribution is being matched by $2.9 million from nonprofit organizations and the state, including $1.8 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $250,000 from the Rasmuson Foundation and $250,000 from the Alaska State Library. The library is also contributing a $613,000 in-kind match from existing staff time and commitment to the project, according to a press release.

The program is part of a larger effort on the part of the NTIA called the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. According to an NTIA report, 233 grants have been awarded totaling about $5.4 billion, which includes matching contributions totaling $1.4 billion.

The NTIA's program has resulted in 66 "Public Computer Center" projects like this one in Alaska, according to the documentation. About $200 million has been obligated to the various awardees.

The Alaska project was prompted by some research conducted on broadband speeds in the state, Thibodeau said.

"A couple of years ago, with the assistance of the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation, we did a broadband speed test and survey of what the speeds were around Alaska and what people could get through broadband. And of the hundred-or-so public libraries, we found that about... 60 of them had speeds of less than half of the minimum 1.5 megabits," Thibodeau said.

Another batch of 20 libraries had between half and three-fourths of that speed, she said.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget@alaskajournal.com.



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