Study: Public libraries challenged to meet patron needs for high-speed Internet access

Contact: Larra Clark
Project Manager
312-280-2129
lclark@ala.org

For release May 5, 2009
10 a.m. EDT

(CHICAGO) With growing demand for public Internet services and Wi-fi access, nearly 60 percent of U.S. public libraries report Internet connection speeds are insufficient to meet patron demand at some point in the day, according to the 2008-2009

"As more and more people turn to their public libraries for critical access to online information and services, the bandwidth needed to provide these services increases rapidly," said American Library Association (ALA) President Jim Rettig. "Just over 70 percent of libraries report they are the only source of free access to computers and the Internet in their communities. As the nation begins to invest in high-speed broadband build-out, it is crucial that that investment include public libraries."

Nationally one in five libraries report connection speeds less than 1.5 Mbps (T1), and the disparity between urban libraries and their rural counterparts is pronounced. About one-third of rural libraries have connection speeds less than 1.5 Mbps, compared with 7.1 percent of urban libraries, and 16 percent of suburban public libraries.

The nature of how information is delivered and shared is changing. Job training programs, classroom instruction, and government officials (e.g., President Obama) increasingly rely on streaming media and Web-delivered videos to reach communities across the country.  A single patron watching a high-definition training video will consume nearly all of a 1.5 Mbps connection, leaving patrons using the library’s other computers or personal laptops with intermittent or no access to email or other Web applications. Inadequate bandwidth also limits a library’s ability to effectively provide new Internet services, such as interactive online homework help or videoconferencing.

Libraries identify cost and availability as the key issues in their ability to improve public access Internet connectivity.

Public Library Internet Access Speeds by Community Type, 2008-2009

Maximum Speed

Urban

Suburban

Rural

Overall

Less than 1.5Mbps

7.1%

16%

31%

21.9%

1.5 Mbps (T1)

26.9%

27.2%

23.8%

25.5%

1.6 -3 Mbps

8.0%

9.5%

11.1%

10.0%

3.1 – 6 Mbps

14.0%

11.6%

10.0%

11.2%

6.1 – 10 Mbps

16.5%

15.7%

5.9%

11.0%

Greater than 10 Mbps

23.9%

12.4%

7.9%

12.3%

Don’t know

2.8%

7.6%

10.3%

8.1%

While there have been improvements over the three years of the study, rural libraries have seen no growth in access speeds greater than 10 Mbps. Three times as many urban libraries (23.9 percent) as rural libraries (7.9 percent) offer Internet speeds greater than 10 Mbps. Urban libraries, however, are more likely to report insufficient capacity to meet heavy patron demand.

"At one time, we would have said a T1 (1.5 Mbps) was just the world, but it just changes too fast. We went from a T1 to two T1s to three T1s to now 15 megabits of fiber," said Beverly Martin, director of the Johnson County Public Library in Indiana.

U.S. public libraries play a key role in ensuring all people have access to the online resources they need to search and apply for jobs, do school assignments, develop small businesses, access government forms, and more. This is particularly important for the 43 percent of Americans who do not have high-speed Internet access at home (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008).

More than three-quarters (76.4 percent) of all public libraries also provide Wi-fi access, up from 65.9 percent one year ago. Seventy-five percent of libraries report wireless and desktop computers share the same network, thus diminishing the effective speed of access to the Internet.

The Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study is conducted by the American Library Association (ALA); the Center for Library Innovation, College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland (UMCP); and the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University (FSU). More than 5,300 public libraries responded to the study’s national survey between September and November 2008 for a 72.8 response rate.

Connectivity data from the study is available at http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/ors/plftas/0809report.cfm. The complete study will be released in September 2009. The study is funded by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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