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What One Library Is Doing With Federal Broadband Funding

For Chicago Ridge Public Library, funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund has gone toward purchasing new laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots to help residents connect to the Internet.

People using computers in a library.
(FlickrCC/Montgomery County Public Libraries)
To provide schools and libraries with the digital services they need to expand remote learning, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has created the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF).

To date, the ECF has doled out $7.171 billion. What libraries and schools are doing with the money will inherently vary depending on their individual needs. One library, however, recently detailed what it has done with its ECF money. Dana Wishnick, who is the library director in Chicago Ridge, Ill., discussed both the experience of obtaining and implementing ECF funds.

“We are using our ECF funds to get both Chromebooks and laptops into the hands of our patrons, along with Wi-Fi hot spots,” Wishnick said.

The idea is that patrons could use these hot spots and laptops to access the Internet outside of the library. The need for this became quite evident during the pandemic, Wishnick explained, especially for adults.

“When the local schools shut down, I think our school system tried to make sure that families and a lot of kids got Chromebooks,” Wishnick said. “So, for us, it was more adults because most kids got Chromebooks.”

More people working from home meant more demand from adult patrons for computers.

“Theoretically, you would hope their jobs would provide this, but we look to help them as well, especially for our patrons who are job searching or applying for benefits,” Wishnick said. “Everything’s moved online.”

As for applying for the funds to purchase these pieces of technology, it hasn’t necessarily been easy.

For example, in the past Chicago Ridge Public Library would use the FCC’s E-rate program, which makes telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries, to help pay for its telephone systems. This is important because schools and libraries that qualify for the E-rate program may request and receive support through the Emergency Connectivity Fund too. However, the E-rate program switched its focus from telephone systems to help schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband.

The problem with this is that the library wasn’t CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act) compliant, preventing access to these funds. As a result, Wishnick has worked with her team to make the library CIPA compliant to fix the issue.

“In a sense, we did that; this is our first year of doing this,” Wishnick said. However, “I started with the ECF funding, and one of the things that happened that was a little frustrating was the amount of time it took to hear back about the funding.”

During this process, Wishnick and her team had to get quotes from purchasers for specific items like Chromebooks before submitting that information. After submitting that, it took so long to hear back that the equipment they were originally interested in was no longer available, causing them to look for alternatives and repeat the reporting process.

At that point, “because I knew we had the money, and I figured eventually they’d approve the change because we weren't asking for more, we put out the money ahead of time,” Wishnick said.

However, the library is still waiting to receive some funds for the technology it purchased.

“We have received payment already on our Chromebooks, laptops and the actual hot spots,” Wishnick said. “What we have not received, from the way I understand it, is payment on the data for the hot spots until that data has been used, so we’ll submit that at the end of the 12 months we’ve got the hot spots for, which will be next year.”

In the end, Wishnick said, “I think it was great when all this COVID money was going out to libraries, schools and other organizations. It was important to make sure our patrons could access services when the library was closed, and even when we’re open, they can still come in and borrow Internet from us and work from home if needed.”
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.