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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cram that funding!

I like libraries.  And librarians.  But the recent letter from the Urban Libraries Council to the FCC is way off base.  I agree with their basic statement, that libraries are funded less than school districts, but then our thoughts diverge.

Proportionality: The ULC makes the odd assumption that E-Rate funding should be apportioned based on the number of buildings.  I agree that on average, libraries get less funding per building than public schools. But I completely disagree that E-Rate funding should be allocated on a per-building basis.  And even if I agreed, their calculations are off.

The ULC compares the number of library buildings that exist to the number of school buildings included on E-Rate applications, and wants to give libraries funding based on that proportion.  Let's fix those numbers.  First, it's 16,392 library buildings.  Second, it's 111,517 school buildings on E-Rate applications.  Third, if you're going to include all libraries, whether they apply or not, let's include the 26,598 private schools that didn't apply (that number's probably a little low, since it counts schools, not locations, but it's good enough).  I don't have the number of public schools that didn't apply, but lets assume that the 976 school districts that didn't apply had an average of 1.02459 schools, so that we get a nice round 1,000 schools (hey, if I'm going to assume, why not give myself a round number).  So the total number of school buildings is 139,115.  Wait, the NCEF says 132,270, so let's take their number.  The ULC said that libraries should receive one sixth of all funding, but the truth is they only have about a ninth of the buildings eligible for E-Rate funding.

Then the ULC says that libraries only received $60-70 million out of $3.96 billion.  OK, first of all, the $3.96 billion is a fantasy based on what the fund would have been if it had been indexed for inflation.  How much do libraries get?  I only have figures for FY 2011-2012, so let's take a look: $71,796,246.10 in disbursements.  OK, the ULC did say "about $60-70 million," but I'm getting a little tired of how they always seem to rounding in their favor.  But that's disbursements.  We should be comparing approvals to the total size of the fund.  Even better, let's compare approved funding for libraries to total approved funding.  I'll stick with 2011.  Libraries were approved for $92,021,445.61 out of a total of  $3,116,629,832.23, or about 3%.  If libraries had gotten a proportion based on the number of buildings eligible for funding, it would have been closer to  $343,650,672.06.  Not the $560 million the ULC lays claim to.

Now let's look at what ULC claims results from this funding injustice:
  1. very few have 1 Gbps bandwidth to the building
    That's a cause, not an effect.  If more libraries chose to have 1 Gbps bandwidth, they would eat up a larger proportion of the fund.  If libraries had asked for E-Rate funding for 10 Gbps per building, they would have gotten it.
  2. perhaps none have the minimally adequate 5 Mbps downlink Wi-Fi per user at critical times
    "Perhaps none"?  I could say, "Perhaps all have 50 Mbps per user"; we don't know what bandwidth they have.  Also, 5 Mbps per user is not "minimally adequate"; well-equipped schools put 20 devices on a single access point with 60 Mbps throughput (802.11n may have 100 Mbps in bandwidth, but not in throughput).  That's 3 Mbps at all times, critical or not.
  3. few have adequate desktop computers for their user base
    Again, that's a cause, not an effect.  The E-Rate does not fund computers.  I agree libraries should have more computers.  And more books.  And more staff.  And more space.  But the E-Rate doesn't fund any of that.
  4. only a very few can afford the high cost of digital information
    I assume by this they're talking about online databases like Lexis-Nexis or JSTOR, which charge fees to access their information.  Again, not eligible for E-Rate funding.
No argument with the rest of this section: libraries are crucial resources for Internet access for many Americans.  It's a very good thing that 100% of libraries offer Internet access to the public.

Needs:  Public libraries receive less financial support from the federal government than any other institution in the civic landscape.  Really?  Let's see what the ALA says: LSTA: $180,909,000; grants to states:  $154,848,000; National Leadership grant: $12,200,000; Laura Bush 21st-century Librarian grants: $10 million; Native American and Hawaiian Library Services: $3,861,000.  That's a total of over $361 million.  Add in $92 million from the E-Rate, and we're at $453 million.  Meanwhile, museums get around $150 million/year (That doesn't include the Smithsonian, but the library figures don't include the Library of Congress).  And I just picked museums off the top of my head.

The undersigned believe in a two-part formula:: (1) income of the user group (weighted by cost of living), plus (2) number of daily users of the building (because the number leads to assessing the necessary Wi-Fi and desktop connectivity).  I'm OK with number one; weighting cost of living adds a new layer of complexity to the discount matrix, which is bad, but it will drive up demand for E-Rate consultants, which is good.  But number two is wrong.  The need for connectivity need is driven by simultaneous users, not daily users.  And by "user," I assume the ULC means someone who uses the library's Internet connection, not someone who visits the library.  Because I probably use my library 100 times a year, but I never use their Internet access.

Because a large urban or suburban library will have at least as many users per day as there are students in a large high school.  Let's see what kind of data we can find.  On page 36 of this report, the IMLS says that library buildings serving a population of 1,000,000 or more have an average of 26.8 public computers.  I can't find any broad statistical studies on Wi-Fi usage, but the the Buffalo Public Library (not a ULC member, but a large urban library) publishes its stats online.  It's main branch seems to have about 5,000 logins/month. That branch is open 6 days/week, roughly 25 days/month, which means about 20 logins/day.  Let's say that all 26.8 public access computers and all 20 Wi-Fi logins use the computers at once.  That's 46.8 simultaneous users.  I'll round it up to 50 simultaneous users.  In the average urban school, there are 3.4 students/computer.  I checked the Buffalo Public Schools high school enrollments, and the largest high school I could find had 1,080 students.  That doesn't strike me as a large high school, but let's go with it.  Assuming Buffalo has a typical student/computer ratio, that's about 317 computers.  So does that urban library with a max of 50 users at a time need as much funding as a school with 300 computers?  And the other library branches in Buffalo have 10-25% of the volume of computer use of the main branch.  Do the small branches deserve as much funding?

Administration: No checkable facts here.  They suggest 3 ways to lower prices for libraries:
  1. All libraries should have access to the contracting prices obtained by other libraries and by schools in similar geographic areas.
    Hear! Hear!  Give us Lowest Corresponding Price.  Or at least publish price and product information hidden in the Item 21 Attachments.  I know I'm dreaming, but at least we have heard the Chairman suggest that the FCC should publish pricing benchmarks.
  2. All public libraries should be able to opt into contracts that the FCC itself puts out for bids.
    The FCC probably doesn't bid out any contracts.  That's handled by the GSA.  And honestly, a contract to serve the FCC is probably not going to be of much use to libraries outside the DC metropolitan area.
  3. All public libraries should be able to know that they can contract for 'whole networks.' This means access to the Internet at a wide area network point of presence, a 1 Gbps fiber connection to every library building (two thirds of libraries have no fiber and those that do cannot afford the electronics upgrade to Gbps bandwidth), a 5 Mbps Wi-Fi downlink inside all buildings, as well as caching, firewall, and maintenance.
    A laudable goal.  But we're going to need a bigger fund.  
So let's look at the real reasons libraries don't get more E-Rate funding.

First, a lot of libraries don't apply.  Here are the reasons why.  The top 3 reasons:
  1. CIPA.  Those dang librarians just won't knuckle under and sacrifice our civil rights to get their hands on some federal moolah.
  2. "The E-rate application process is too complicated."
  3. "Our total E-rate discount is fairly low and not worth the time needed to participate in the program."
Second, libraries get less funding because their telecom and Internet needs are lower.  If libraries requested more funding, they would get it.  Let's take the first signatory on the list whose service area is a single school district: Alexandria, VA.  We'll look at pre-discount telecom and Internet costs for FY 2014-2015.  Library: $35,773.68.  School district: $791,172.00.  Let's make that a per-building cost. Library: $8,943.42. School district: $ 34,398.78.

And no, it's not that libraries are falling further short of their needs.  More than half of libraries said their bandwidth is sufficient to meet patron needs almost all of the time.  When libraries rated the challenges in providing access to patrons, the top  problems were: quantity of staff, staff training, insufficient workstations, liability issues, and the library's time limits on access.  Bandwidth came in 6th.  According to one survey, 37% of schools have inadequate bandwidth, compared with 34% of libraries.

If the ULC wants to increase the proportion of E-Rate funding going to libraries, they should campaign for changes in CIPA regulations and simplification of the application process.  The solution is not to give libraries more funding than they're asking for.


  1. Anonymous2:26 PM

    Just to correct the record on the Buffalo Library:

    1) The main "Central Library" in Buffalo has 100 public access computers which hosted 15,415 sessions in November 2014;
    2) Wi-Fi logins were 4,683 in November 2014;
    3) Open days were shortened by Winter Storm Knife (aka Snowvember Storm), with the library closed 11/18-11/21, resulting in the number of days open in November being 26 days including Sundays. The 5 Sundays in November were 1/2 days which would lower the "full day" open count to 23.5;

    That yields approximately:
    15,415 / 23.5 = 656 public computer sessions per day;
    4,683 / 23.5 = 199 Wi-Fi logins per day

    That would change your max "at once" scenario from
    "26.8 public access computers and all 20 Wi-Fi logins use the computers at once. That's 46.8 simultaneous users"
    100 public access computers and all 199 Wi-Fi logins use the computers at once. That's 299 simultaneous users

    Of course Wi-Fi use is spread throughout the day, just using your scenario to compare apples to apples.

    e-Rate is an important program to bridge the digital divide through schools and libraries. Hopefully we can all work together on this...

  2. Thank you for the data. I'm always happy to have better information.

    The new data doesn't convince me that the bandwidth and Wi-Fi needs of an urban library are anywhere near as much as a large high school, but others may view the data differently.