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New Support for Public Libraries to Help Provide Broadband Access for More Americans - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Foundation will fund state-level efforts to improve Internet connections in libraries, and to apply for federal broadband stimulus funds

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Phone: +1.206.709.3400

SEATTLE -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today committed nearly $3.4 million in grants to bolster Internet connections for libraries in five states. It also announced partnerships with 14 additional states to help public libraries compete for federal broadband stimulus funds. Nationally, libraries report that patron demand for high-speed Internet access is growing faster than their ability to provide increased bandwidth. A recent American Library Association study reports that 60 percent of all libraries say their current Internet speed is insufficient.

State libraries in Arkansas ($735,207), Kansas ($363,099), Massachusetts ($367,789), New York ($947,517), and Virginia ($977,468) received foundation funds to execute statewide plans to improve and maintain Internet connections in local libraries. Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Washington will participate in the foundation’s new Opportunity Online broadband grant program, which will help libraries develop proposals for federal broadband stimulus funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program established through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Federal, state, and local government investments in connecting libraries to broadband are important steps toward realizing the vision of universal broadband access,” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Libraries program. “When libraries have access to broadband, they can effectively deliver critical educational, employment, and government services for residents that lack Internet access elsewhere. As community anchor institutions, libraries can also help drive local broadband adoption.”

Nearly 40 percent of Americans, often those with lower incomes and lower levels of education, still don’t have high-speed Internet access at home. In most communities (70 percent), the public library is the only provider of free Internet access available to residents.

NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) is expected to award federal stimulus grants to private and public sector applicants starting in early 2010 to expand broadband infrastructure to more communities across the country and to help new Internet users benefit from broadband access.

States participating in the foundation’s Opportunity Online broadband grant program will receive technical and consulting assistance to develop competitive funding proposals for BTOP, and will receive federally-required matching funds from the Gates Foundation, contingent on a successful BTOP award. Participating states will also receive assistance to help secure additional federal E-rate funding to sustain broadband connection costs in the future.

The foundation solicited letters of interest for the Opportunity Online broadband program from state libraries seeking to acquire significant additional broadband access for libraries in their respective states. The foundation chose to support states that articulated the most compelling and feasible projects aligned with the objectives of the BTOP program. The foundation also considered a state’s need for assistance in developing a competitive BTOP proposal.

“Libraries have never faced so much demand for high-quality Internet access,” said Susan McVey, director of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, which will partner with the foundation to apply for BTOP funds. “It’s critical that current efforts to expand broadband access in America include strong support for public libraries so they can continue to serve as thriving, vital community technology hubs.”
The five states receiving Gates Foundation grants today to implement local broadband improvement plans have partnered with the foundation since early 2009 to develop strategies for upgrading and sustaining Internet connections in libraries, as well as raising federal E-rate participation rates among libraries. Arkansas, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia were selected to receive foundation grants because they had a high number of libraries without high-speed Internet access that were struggling to increase their bandwidth for patrons. The state libraries of California and Texas also participated in the program and will be eligible for grants in early 2010. 
“With support from the foundation, nearly all of Massachusetts’s public libraries will be able to provide high-quality broadband service for their communities and give patrons the online opportunities they need to improve their lives, especially during these strained economic times,” said Robert Maier, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. “This means more of our residents will be able to get online at their library and successfully look for a job, find e-government information and services, improve their workforce skills, and continue their education.”  

The foundation has invested $350 million in grants and support to install and sustain computers in libraries and train thousands of library staff in all 50 states and U.S. territories. The foundation continues to support libraries through investments in programs, research, advocacy training, and public awareness efforts that will help libraries sustain high-quality online access for patrons in partnership with their communities. For more information, visit the foundation's libraires page.

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