A New Broadband Imperative for Libraries: Serving the Community During Times of Emergency

Jacob Levin, Analyst

Libraries’ primary mission—as centers of knowledge in communities large and small—is well understood. But libraries are also community hubs, and in that role they often serve as a refuge, a source of trusted information, and a link to the outside world during and after crises. That second role magnifies libraries’ need for robust and resilient broadband connections.

Major natural disasters like wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes can temporarily place entire communities on the wrong side of the digital divide at a time when access to connectivity may be a matter of life and death. Damage to cell towers and utility poles can sever individuals from the networks that allow them to communicate and access information and resources.

As residential internet connections and mobile devices fail, people flock to their local library branches in search of power and a Wi-Fi connection. In the wake of California’s wildfires in Napa and Mendocino counties in 2017, for example, libraries saw a huge spike in demand for broadband services. During that crisis—and following other disasters elsewhere in the country—libraries’ public technology services allowed affected individuals to report themselves safe, locate loved ones, apply for FEMA relief, and plan their next steps.

Libraries rise to the needs of their community during crisis. After observing the critical role that libraries played in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for example, the New Jersey State Library decided to help libraries lean into their role as “information First Responders,” publishing a “Librarian’s Disaster Planning and Community Resiliency Guidebook,” as well as a workbook library staff can use to prepare to support their communities during and after a crisis.

In practice, preparing a library to provide connectivity during and after a catastrophic event will also better equip the library to address gaps in connectivity at all other times. The technology requirements are largely the same for both tasks.

With good planning and hardened communication infrastructure, libraries can serve as beacons of connectivity when their communities need it the most. To make their broadband connections more resilient, libraries can seek to add path diversity to their networks, keep redundant network components on hand for emergency deployment, and install a backup power supply.

For more insight, see the two white papers we recently prepared for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: “Technical Guidance Regarding Broadband Infrastructure for Libraries” and “Connecting Libraries to the Future.” CTC also recently developed an estimate of the cost to build fiber to connect all unserved libraries and other anchor institutions nationwide; that report, prepared for the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), was part of SHLB’s effort to develop a concrete strategy for addressing the rural digital divide.

Published: Thursday, August 16, 2018 by CTC Technology & Energy