Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The E-Rate Program and Libraries and Library Consortia, 2000-2004: Trends and Issues

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The E-Rate Program and Libraries and Library Consortia, 2000-2004: Trends and Issues

Article excerpt

The E-rate program has provided tremendous benefits to libraries, allowing many libraries and library systems to acquire technological equipment and services that would otherwise be too expensive, increasing the availability of public Internet access through libraries. This article analyzes the data related to the E-rate program and the discounts that it has provided to libraries and library systems between 2000 and 2004. By examining the E-rate data in a longitudinal manner, this article explores the trends in the application for and the provision of E-rate discounts to libraries and library consortia at national and state levels. The data suggest that, despite a number of controversies over the years, the program has provided a significant level of support for libraries and library consortia.

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The United States federal government established the E-rate program as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (1) The act placed great emphasis on universal service--the expansion of access to communication for previously underserved populations, particularly for those in rural and urban areas. (2) A key part of these goals was the expansion of access to telecommunications for schools, libraries, and healthcare providers. Section 254(h) of the act, also known as the Snowe-Rockefeller-Exon-Kerrey Amendment, created the education rate ("E-rate") program that allows for the application of discounts in telecommunications services, internal connections, and Internet services for schools, libraries, and healthcare providers. These discounts first became available in 1998, and the program makes as much as $2.25 billion available every year for qualified organizations through the provision of discounts.

Recipients can have the discounts applied to their bills or receive reimbursements for specific services, depending on the communication needs of a recipient. The costs of the E-rate program are paid by funds collected from customers of telecommunications companies. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), a nonprofit entity, oversees the distribution of the E-rate discounts. E-rate applications by libraries and library consortia are administered by USAC's Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) (www.sl.universalservice.org). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees USAC activities.

Libraries can qualify as applicants for E-rate discounts if they meet the definition of a library within the constraints of the Library Services and Technology Act and if they have a budget completely separate from a school. (3) Libraries can apply individually or as part of consortia. Over its first six years, the program committed approximately $12 billion in discounts, with the vast majority of E-rate discounts being awarded to schools. (4) Since the program began awarding discounts, libraries and library consortia have consistently received 3 to 4 percent of total E-rate discounts each year. (5) This emphasis on schools as the highest funding priority has also been reflected in analyses of the social effects of the program, which have focused heavily on E-rate in schools. (6)

The program allows libraries to apply for discounts between 20 and 90 percent for services related to the provision of communication, including Internet access, internal connections, and telecommunications services. The level of the discount varies according to economic need of the community served by the applicant and if the applicant serves a rural or urban area. As an indicator of need, USAC assesses libraries' applications in terms of the percentage of students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches from the National School Lunch Program in the library service area (www. sl.universalservice.org/Reference/eligible.asap).

Although there are other external sources of funding for communications and technology available to libraries, the E-rate program has become very important to libraries in the United States. …

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