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From the mid-1960s—when the first iteration of computing machines was introduced—to today, the speed at which we attain information has changed astronomically. While libraries have always been well known as the place to gain information, they have also kept up with the times by hosting cutting-edge technologies in order to allow their community members to access it for themselves.

Today’s guest blog is authored by Ivy Stover, Library Director at Magdalena Public Library in New Mexico, USA. This piece highlights a project that took place in 2019 which enabled rural libraries to deliver high-speed internet access directly to households within the communities they serve.

Connecting the Community with Improved Internet

Back in October 2019, the Magdalena Public Library got new, fiber optic internet and threw a big party. People from all over the state came to celebrate, including one of our state representatives. Locals also came en-masse to show support. We had cake, presentations, and a few streamers. We even cut a massive ribbon! Everyone was super excited about this new internet.

But wait. New internet? What was your old internet?

Our library used to have an old, slow dial-up internet called DSL, or Digital Subscriber Line. It worked by transmitting data across phone lines. That still existed in 2019!? Yup! It was super slow and often got tied up, so data couldn’t transfer. Anyone who was online at the time lost what they were doing until it came back on. It also took a super long time to connect to the internet, open a browser, or load websites. Downloading or uploading content was practically impossible. It sometimes took 1 whole hour to download a 30-minute TV show. And when one person was downloading, it would eat up a lot of the bandwidth, so connections would slow down even more for everyone else, sometimes even booting people off. It was a hot mess.

Most people have cable internet at their homes. It’s how your Wi-Fi box gets internet. Cable internet also transmits data across copper pipes, but it isn’t connected to your phone lines. If you have a package deal with TV and the internet, you probably have cable internet.

Average speeds for DSL were 2 Mbps, meaning it could transfer two megabits of data per second. Average speeds for cable internet range from 20-100 Mbps – much faster than DSL but can still be pretty slow.

Magdalena is a small, rural village in New Mexico, about 30 minutes West of Interstate I-25 and surrounded by mountains. Because of this, the only kind of internet available in town was DSL – we couldn’t even get cable internet. And some folks couldn’t even get DSL, having to use satellite internet or go without.

Fiber Optics

You may have heard of the newest technology in internet connections – fiber optics. Fiber optics is a new kind of cord to transfer data. Instead of using copper pipes and electricity, fiber optics use super-thin glass strings. Light is sent along the strings in bursts. These light bursts are then read by a sensor, which processes them as code. The advantage is that fiber optic cables can carry more data at a single time. Because of this, fiber optic speeds are closer to 100 Mbps, all the time.

Why doesn’t everyone have it?

The cost. Fiber-optic services are a lot more expensive than cable or DSL. Depending on where you are, it can be almost 2 to 3 times more expensive than DSL or cable.

So how did you get fiber optics?

The New Mexico State Library realized that a lot of its libraries were still stuck using DSL, especially rural and tribal libraries. Internet services in rural and tribal libraries are even more vital to the community. As stated, most of our community has incredibly slow internet at home – if they even have it at all, which many do not. In an increasingly digital age, internet access is more and more necessary. Job applications, work email, homework research, staying connected to friends and family – all require internet connections. For those who can’t afford it or don’t have access to it where they live, libraries are an important resource.

But when the libraries can’t handle all the internet trafficking needs, patrons suffer. So, the State Library put together a pilot project involving ten libraries and schools. The point of the project was to help these 10 entities get fiber optics and the necessary equipment to have faster internet available.

Libraries and Partnerships

The NM State Library partnered with the New Mexico Public Schools Facilities Authority, or PSFA, who already helps schools apply for and manage E-Rate aid. The two agencies worked together with each library and school in the pilot project through every step. They helped with managing bids for new technology and fiber optics installation, applying for E-Rate funding for both new equipment and new services, and coordinating the installation and change in service from DSL.

What’s E-Rate?

E-Rate is a government funding program that helps public entities like schools and libraries pay for internet equipment and services. Receiving E-Rate aid is a huge help to us libraries with tiny budgets, who otherwise would not be able to afford it. However, applying for E-Rate is a long, tricky process. It can be easy to miss deadlines or make mistakes. That’s why the NM State Library and PSFA were there to help.

Cool. So, what now?

It took a while, but all ten libraries and schools got our new, faster internet up and running by October 2019. Since then, internet services have been amazing. No more crazy download times or lagging screens, no more being booted off the internet because someone else ate up all the bandwidth. Magdalena Public Library has seen an increase in visitors who come to use our computers or Wi-Fi. It’s been an amazing boost for our patrons. But more than that, it’s also helping our community.

The library was the first to get fiber optics in Magdalena – no one else had it. Part of the installation fees was the cost of bringing a fiber optic line to the area. Now that the line exists, people in the community can connect to it much easier and less expensively. It’s like being the first person to bring in a cell tower – now that it’s here, no one else needs to pay to bring it in.

Already, a few families have connected to the fiber optic line. They now get to enjoy amazing internet speeds and aren’t struggling with DSL anymore. Other families are looking into joining as well. The local school is also being connected to the line, so their teachers and students can have better opportunities for learning.

Because of the success of the pilot project, the New Mexico legislature has also approved funding to help other libraries and schools across the state get fiber optics. Within the next few years, we’ll all be up to top speeds!

Connecting People

Connecting people and information together has always been a cornerstone on which libraries are built. This initiative is a great example of libraries leading the way to achieve improved access to information for everyone. Because of the partnership between the State Library and PSFA the groundwork was put in place and now rural libraries are able to literally connect the community they serve to this new and improved internet service.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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