Session: “All (Telecom) Politics is Local: What the FCC is up to and what it has to do with your library” – Sat. Jan. 12, 10:30-12:00
Part I: An Overview of U.S. Broadband Deployment and Policy
After the Washington Office Update Saturday morning, I attended a break-out session about telecommunications issues. The first speaker was John Windhausen, president of Telepoly Consultings, a company that works with small local telecom companies. He spoke about U.S. broadband policy (or lack thereof). He stated that in terms of the percentage of citizens with broadband internet access, the U.S. has been falling in the rankings every year, and is currently fifteenth. The U.S. also has a lower average connection speed in comparison to some other countries. This affects libraries, because 99% of U.S. libraries offer free internet access to their patrons. However, 52% cannot always accommodate the demand for this service. Mr. Windhausen talked about several factors contributing to this problem, including a lack of investment in broadband for small business and consumers, and the market structure, which he called “a duopoly between DSL and cable.” He had several suggestions about what librarians can do to help improve access to broadband and their ability to accommodate demand for high-speed internet access. Most importantly, librarians should educate state and local governments about their needs and make sure that they are included in discussions about this topic. Libraries should also form consortia when possible, in order to aggregate their demand and have more power to negotiate with telecom companies for better service. He also added that whenever possible, libraries should use fiber cables for their internet access. This is not currently widely available in the U.S. However, because of its much higher speed, Mr. Windhausen believes fiber is the only technology that will be able to easily accommodate the public’s quickly burgeoning demand.
Part II: The Digital Television Transition
In the second half of the session, speakers Bill Weber of public television station WHYY, and Joe McPeak of the Philadelphia Free Library, gave an overview of the nation’s upcoming transition from analog to digital television signals and described how the city of Philadelphia is preparing for this. Beginning at midnight on February 17, 2009, analog broadcasts will be turned off throughout the country. This will not affect people who subscribe to cable or satellite television. However, those people who currently get their television over the air (for example, using an antenna) will no longer be able to do this, unless they have a TV equipped to receive digital signals, or get a digital converter box for their old TVs.
This transition has been planned for a long time (digital signals began to be broadcast ten years ago) and has several benefits: it will allow for better use of the broadcast spectrum, increased signal quality, and more over-the-air channels. However, because television is an important source of information, it is necessary to make the public aware of this transition and how they can prepare for it. In order to help defray the cost of the converter boxes, the government will be issuing $40 coupons, which can be used toward their purchase. Every U.S. household can request up to two coupons, either online, by phone or fax, or through a mail-in application. The converter boxes will be available for sale beginning in February 2008, and are expected to cost between $40 and $100.
The speakers noted that many people may come to their public libraries for information about digital television and the coupon program, and that librarians should especially focus on raising awareness about it among vulnerable groups such as the elderly, non-English speakers, and low-income households, who are more likely to be affected by the transition.