President Joe Biden signed H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, into law Monday, November 16, 2021. The $1.2 trillion dollar bill will have the largest federal investments in public transit, the largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was created, the largest investment in bridge repair since the construction of the interstate highway system, as well as major investments in clean energy, access to clean water and waste water infrastructure, and providing high-quality and high-speed broadband internet for all Americans.
The $65 billion dollar allotment for broadband access is especially noteworthy for how it impacts public libraries across the country. Where the bill will help build the infrastructure to ensure broadband is available for all Americans — like the government did for electricity a century ago — it will also ensure that access is affordable. This is especially important in rural areas where little competition exists and families don’t have the opportunity to comparison shop for the best plan for them.
Within the next 180 days, broadband grants will be made available for what the bill calls “community anchor institutions,” including libraries. These $42 billion in grants will allow for accessing more affordable broadband in high cost areas. Libraries in rural areas will especially benefit from the opportunity to tap into these grants to acquire reliable internet for their institutions, as well as seek out more competitive alternatives for broadband that may be taking more of their budgets than is sustainable.
In many remote areas of the US, the library is the only place where internet is available. This bill will not only bolster that availability for those institutions, but it will likewise make internet services more accessible for individuals within those communities.
In addition to the broadband grant program is the $2.75 billion “State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program,” which seeks to bridge the digital divide. The purpose of these grants is to promote the achievement of digital equity, support digitally inclusive activities, and to support building broadband capacity. This money will assist in developing widely available and stable wireless internet access so individuals can access essential internet resources, build digital literacy, creating access to affordable devices and support for those devices to consumers, and education in digital security and online privacy.
This is where libraries are especially able to tap into what it is they do well. They will be able to offer digital literacy programs and trainings, procure the digital devices for patrons to borrow and explore, and develop programming and training in a wide range of topics related to digital citizenship. Libraries will be able to be leaders in helping their communities tap into the resources being made available while also being able to access funds to do so.
Rural libraries won’t be the only beneficiaries. Urban and suburban libraries struggled to keep up with demand for digital tools and training for a digitally literate citizenship prior to the pandemic. The pandemic made the need for upgrades more urgent, and these grants will benefit libraries struggling under the demands of an online world.
Though the digital divide has long been a topic of discussion in libraries, the pandemic and shut down of schools across the country brought the issue into the spotlight. While some schools and libraries were able to provide the physical resources for online learning, many could not, and without home access to laptops or reliable internet, it was impossible to overlook the realities of the country’s digital inequity. Without home internet, families were cut off from their communities and from education. Libraries, too, struggled to balance the needs of patrons with the realities of a pandemic and the budget — and digital — constraints of their institutions.
Many are now not only struggling with these same challenges, but they’re also faced with on-going staff shortages that were already occurring before the pandemic but have become worse in recent months. Some libraries have been forced to cut their hours because of staffing realities, causing more difficulties for families in need of their digital resources.
Details about how to apply for these grants are forthcoming. This is a significant project that’s drawn comparisons to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program: it will be a major overhaul to American infrastructure as we know it, stretching out long past this administration’s tenure.
The full text of the bill is available to read online.