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Bandwidth Boost For Libraries Gaining Support

A plan to put fiber optic technology in public libraries may be a candidate for federal stimulus funding.

An effort to make the nation's public libraries a major source of robust Internet access is gaining momentum as a disparate group of foundations, companies, and trade and government agencies weigh in with plans to build support for bringing fiber optic technology to the country's 16,500 libraries.

The drive has attracted supporters that range from Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Congressman Rick Boucher (D-VA) and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA). Boucher, who is House Communications Subcommittee chairman, has already told FCC chairman Julius Genachowski that a plan to equip public libraries should focus on delivering "extraordinarily high bandwidth" to libraries.

Public libraries have long been an important source of Internet access for many Americans as evidenced by a 2007 American Library Association report noting that nearly three-quarters of the nation's public libraries were the only source of free public access to the Web.

The effort to equip public libraries -- and other so-called anchor institutions including hospitals, public schools, and community colleges -- is considered to be a candidate for federal stimulus funding.

Don Means, founder of the Fiber to the Library Project, has said improving Internet broadband access to public libraries "provides the biggest bang for the stimulus buck." The Gates Foundation, in a proceeding before the FCC, has estimated an investment of $700 million to $1.7 billion would pay for the installation fiber for 87% of public libraries currently without fiber. The Gates FCC effort seeks to generate public comments by Oct. 28.

"We see libraries as early adopters of technologies," said Means in a statement. "A lot of people had their first experience with first-generation broadband at a library. We think libraries are demand drivers for emerging technologies."

Richard Whitt, Google's telecommunications and media counsel in Washington, said Google supports the effort to beef up robust Internet access at public libraries. Upgrading public libraries, he has said, "will help transform those institutions into future technology hubs, local community nodes, and the essential information centers for the 21st Century."

The Gates Foundation recently filed a cost model and cost estimates for providing fiber optic connectivity to anchor institutions with an estimate that it may cost as much at $5 billion to $10 billion to complete deployment.

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