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TL v61n2:Scope of Broadband
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 2



Scope of Broadband Education and Deployment in Rural Libraries: Desperately-Seeking Partners in a Grant Proposal


Kimberly Black, Assistant  Professor

Bharat Mehra, Associate Professor

Vandana Singh, Assistant Professor

School of Information Sciences, Univeristy of Tennessee, Knoxville 


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Introduction: Broadband and Economic Development

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations devoted to information and technology communications issues, has declared that “in the 21st century, the social and economic development of every country on earth will depend on broadband”  (ITU, Build on Broadband). The ITU suggests that broadband is so important that it should be considered basic national infrastructure and that governments “must ensure that affordable, equitable access to broadband networks is available to all citizens, wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances” (ibid). In the United States, there has been a diverse array of efforts to make broadband connectivity and access widely available at a nominal cost. Key among these efforts is the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund ( also known as the “E-Rate Program” and the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Telecommunications Program ( Despite these efforts, the United States ranks 12 out of the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations for fixed (e.g., DSL or cable) broadband use on a per household basis (Federal Communications Commission, 2011). This fact calls into question the effectiveness of past broadband efforts in the United States, whether these efforts have been enough and whether they have served the interests of all parts of the nation in an equitable manner.

Despite federal government programs like E-rate, there is a persistent disparity in broadband access and use between individuals living in urban areas and those living in rural areas.  There is still an urban-rural divide in household broadband access. For example, in the South, 83% of urban households have broadband access, while only 69.7% of rural households have broadband access (Sternberg et al, 2009).  Much of this disparity has been attributed to the lack of availability of broadband service in the southern region. Sternberg et al. (2009) have found that the Appalachian region has a smaller than expected number of broadband service providers as compared to other regions of the United States even after controlling for other factors related to differences in service provision such as population density. In looking at the national picture of broadband service provision, these researchers suggest that there are two key factors leading to the disparity in Appalachia from the rest of the country. They are: 1.) The topography of the region and  2.) The state level policies and programs. Importantly, Sternberg et al. (2009) did not see educational attainment levels or the economic base of the region as causal factors leading to the disparity. Because of the growing importance of broadband availability to economic security and vitality of all places, it is important to study broadband availability and use in the region. Sternberg et al. (2009) found that “rural economies benefit generally from broadband Internet availability. In comparing counties that had broadband access relatively early (by 2000) with similarly situated counties that had little or no broadband access as of 2000, employment growth was higher and non-farm private earnings greater in counties with a longer history of broadband availability” (p. 39). 

Libraries (and public libraries in particular) are one of the few non-commercial institutions that both provide basic access to and support for the effective use of broadband technology in people’s everyday lives. Thus, libraries can be, and in many cases are, a major support in the economic development and viability of a locality. They serve this role in part, by providing basic Internet access and also by providing several key complementary support services that reinforce the benefits of access and economic development. The complementary services include help with basic literacy which is an essential building block for a 21st century workforce, they help people learn about careers and find jobs, and they help entrepreneurs and small business people to gain business insight, to locate resources suppliers and customers, to conduct market research and to obtain information needed to sustain or improve their businesses (Fels Research & Consulting University of Pennsylvania, 2010).

The purpose of this workshop presented at the Tennessee Library Association Conference 2011 ( is twofold. The first purpose is to gather preliminary data about broadband and information access issues as they relate to workforce and small business development from librarians living and working in Tennessee. The secondary purpose of the workshop is to solicit for partnerships and collaborators in an upcoming grant proposal to the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) about Appalachian rural library broadband access and its impact on the region’s economic development through the examination of the specific issues of workforce development, small business development and entrepreneurship.

In a general sense, there are several players and resources related to economic development in the Appalachian region. Among them, the most important are: large employers (big businesses and government), small businesses (including home-based businesses and small farms), workforce and the general skills available to employers in the adult workforce, and the geographic assets and infrastructures available (e.g. raw materials, transportation and communication infrastructure, etc.), and others. Libraries do have a role to play in the economic development and continued economic viability of the region. In the 2011 edition of the American Libraries Associations’ The State of American Libraries which provides a synthesis of findings from a variety of recent studies, ALA concluded that investments in libraries yield greater returns than their cost. In support of this argument, they cite a study conducted by the Fels Institute of Government (University of Pennsylvania): “The economic-impact study concludes that the library created more than $30 million worth of economic value to the city in fiscal 2010 and that it had a particularly strong impact on business development and employment. Among the study‘s more astonishing findings: An estimated 8,600 businesses could not have been started, sustained or grown without the resources respondents acquired at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Direct economic impact: Almost $4 million” (ALA, 2011, p. 4).


Before describing the study, it is important to define and discuss several terms and concepts. The key concepts presented in the study include “workforce development,” “business development” and “broadband.”

Workforce Development. There are many extant definitions of “workforce development” in the management and economics literature. The traditional definitions are virtually synonymous with adult vocational training and continuing education. Because of extraordinary changes in society such as increasing globalization, advances in communication and information technology, free market capitalism and demographic shifts in the composition of the workforce (e.g. “Baby Boomers” and “Millennials”), scholars have begun to re-conceptualize what it means to develop the workforce at the personal, societal and international level. That is, “workforce development” is a more complex phenomenon than simply job training.  Thus, there are reciprocal associations among the individual workplaces and society in the development of human competence and human capital. Jacobs (2002) defines workforce development in an expansive way. According to him, workforce development is “the coordination of school, company, and governmental policies and programs such that as a collective they enable individuals the opportunity to realize a sustainable livelihood and organizations to achieve exemplary goals, consistent with the history, culture, and goals of the societal context” (p. 13). Jacobs’ definition of “workforce development” encompasses a focus on four societal issues: 1) How schools and agencies prepare individuals to enter or re-enter the workforce; 2) How organizations provide learning opportunities to improve workforce performance; 3) How organizations respond to changes that affect workforce effectiveness; 4) How individuals undergo life transitions related to workforce participation (Jacobs, 2002, p. 13). 

Libraries are institutions that can play a unique and significant role in workforce development as defined traditionally (in terms of vocational training) and in more encompassing terms as Jacobs describes. Libraries can play a particularly significant role in rural areas where there are often no nearby commercial service providers (such as copy shops, large bookstores, etc.) or alternative resources for people to use. Public libraries contribute to workforce development in many ways. The study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government described many concrete ways that public libraries contributed to workforce development including the circulation of workforce related print material (often books about resume writing, careers, interviewing, and preparation books for tests and certifications such as for the GED or post office exam) and by supporting job search activities (such as finding a job, creating a resume, sending and receiving messages from an employer, etc.). Public libraries also provided access to work-related databases and provided programming and motivation/support for job seekers. Although all of these activities do not require the specific use of broadband, it can be argued that the availability of support resources and assistance improved the effective use of broadband service by those in the workforce.

Business Development. An issue related to workforce development is business development.  Businesses utilize the available workforce to achieve their purpose and their goals and objectives. Large employers tend to locate in areas where there is a big enough workforce containing necessary skills and competencies for them to achieve their goals. Small businesses need human resources as well, but because of their size, they do not typically need large numbers of employees so the overall capability of the general workforce in an area is less of an issue than it is for large businesses. Small businesses do, however, need information resources in order to exist and to remain viable in the interconnected, globalized economy of the 21st century. Public libraries provide this critical information at low or no cost and therefore contribute to the development of small businesses located near them. The Fels study (mentioned above) indicated several concrete ways that the public library enables and supports small businesses. Public libraries provide business-related books and materials, they give small business owners and entrepreneurs access to computers and high speed connections and other technologies (such as printers, faxes, and copiers), they provide business related databases “that provide business people with market research data, competitive business information, leads and other tools useful in starting or growing a business” (Fels Research & Consulting University of Pennsylvania, 2010, p. 9) and they provide library programming for business owners, entrepreneurs, and developers. 

In rural areas in particular, libraries provide critical resources and tools to enable small business development and entrepreneurship. As has already been stated, in rural areas there are often no other commercial service providers for faxes or copy machines or Internet access.  In addition, public libraries charge low or no fees for some services; unlike commercial enterprises who must show a profit, public libraries are often only attempting to recover costs and in many cases subsidize the costs of these services which businesses can enjoy.

Broadband.  The definition of “broadband” has changed over time with the development and improvement of telecommunications technology. Early definitions included the mention of specific means of connectivity, specific uses of connectivity and/or specific connection speeds. The ITU and other organizations have been defining broadband in a more encompassing way. The ITU defines broadband as “a network infrastructure capable of reliably delivering diverse convergent services through high-capacity access over a mix of technologies”. …broadband [is defined] as a cluster of concepts, such as an always-on service (not needing the user to make a new connection to a server each time), and high-capacity: able to carry lots of data per second, rather than at a particular speed” (ITU, 2011).  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does currently define broadband in terms of connection speed. According to the FCC, “basic broadband” is defined as data transmission speeds of at least 4 megabits per second (Mbps) (FCC, 2010).  Broadband connectivity can be delivered using a variety of different technologies such as digital subscriber lines (DSL) or cable, fiber optic lines, wireless technology, and satellites.

Broadband Research

Libraries provide education about, and access to, broadband connectivity to their service communities. Through the provision of computer training services and basic access to computers with a high speed connection and printers, librarians help meet vital needs in their communities. The purpose of this research project is to gather some preliminary data about how the provision of broadband access and training by Tennessee libraries impacts economic development in the South and Central Appalachian region. Two specific facets of economic development are explored: support for small businesses/entrepreneurship and general workforce development. The findings from this preliminary data will be used as part of the application for a grant proposal to be submitted to the IMLS’ Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.

The research was conducted during a workshop as part of a presentation session at the Tennessee Library Association Conference 2011. The research participants attended the “Scope of Broadband Education and Deployment in Rural Libraries: Desperately-Seeking Partners in A Grant Proposal” session at the Tennessee Library Association Conference 2011 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The session consisted of a discussion of broadband access and use and a general discussion about broadband use observed in Tennessee libraries and communities. There were three formal goals outlined for the session:
• To discuss availability and access to broadband services related to economic development in Tennessee.

• To discuss education needs related to broadband access in Tennessee.

• To discuss potential partnerships and collaborations for future work.

Participation in the research portion of the session was voluntary. A session leader lead the discussion by asking questions from a questionnaire while another session leader took general notes. 


There were a small number of participants in the group discussion, but the discussion itself was lively. All participants lived and worked in Tennessee in a variety of environments—rural, urban, and suburban. There were two overarching themes that emerged from the discussion. The first was that participants believed there was persistent inequality in access to high speed connections in many of the rural areas and also in some of the urban/suburban areas. The second overarching theme was the suggestion that librarians in Tennessee needed to take on a more active advocacy role on behalf of their patrons in securing wider broadband access in all regions of Tennessee which participants saw as instrumental for full social and economic participation in society.

Session participants were asked generally about the nature of technology training related to workforce skills that they provided and they were asked what types of training/education needs they observed in their communities. The participants did not describe any special training that they provided in their institutions. Instead, they indicated that some patrons needed assistance and some patrons (though not all) had a very low level of understanding about how to use technology effectively. The participants indicated that they provided basic access to computing equipment and access to high speed connections. They emphasized the importance of this access as a means of full social and economic participation in contemporary life. They discussed how public opinion polling is used to inform discourse about elections via the Internet and concluded that the whole social process [and governance] has been recently enabled by Internet use. The discussants declared that in order to be a viable part of the society everyone should have access to the Internet and many in Tennessee were getting excluded from this process because of a lack of broadband access and lack of skills in its effective use. The participants then described and discussed the connections between adult learning (including education for job-related skills) with broadband Internet access. They indicated that a lack of Internet access directly resulted in a lack of ability to access education and training among those in their communities. One respondent suggested that in her/his community, adequate education is also not accessible to people who do not have access to the Internet.

The workshop participants were asked how small businesses and how individual workers were impacted by the general availability of broadband in their communities. One respondent noted that there were areas in her service community that did not have electricity and this participant indicated that the lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity or broadband made economic development of her community extremely difficult. All discussants stated that there were areas that did not have broadband access somewhere in their general communities. All respondents suggested that there is a widespread societal assumption that everyone has access to computing technology and high speed connections and they noted that the reality that they observed in their communities did not always support this assumption. The participants shared links between a lack of broadband access to economic viability. One respondent suggested that one’s economic status was defined by whether one could get access to Internet or not. Another suggested that the old notion that only rich people had books is being replaced by the idea that only rich people have access to the Internet. One participant suggested that certain elements in society used Internet/broadband as a deliberate tool to create a barrier in information access for other members of society.

The final series of questions addressed the roles that libraries can play to further broadband use for the purpose of economic development, small business development, and workforce development. Some respondents noted that libraries were not the only providers of broadband in their communities and they stated commercial enterprises like restaurant chains (e.g., McDonalds and Wendy’s) provided WiFi Internet access (to their customers) in some areas and that people in their own communities needed this access. In order to make avail of access provided by these non-library service providers, however, community members needed to own or have access to a laptop computer with wireless capability. Possibly, librarians could loan or rent laptop computers to their patrons for low or minimal cost.

The participants in the workshop indicated in several ways that they believed a key role for libraries was one of advocacy. One participant observed that people without Internet access have no advocates. Another noted that people with Internet access paid universal access fees, but not everyone received benefits from this or had meaningful Internet access as yet even in the 21st century which was deplorable (as stated by the participant). One workshop participant declared that the Internet and broadband infrastructure should be expanded in the manner that was done for telephones—this participant declared that there were persistent “last mile” access problems in her community. Discussants noted that they believed libraries should be the vocal entity that advocates for people who do not have Internet access and that the government should not be putting everything online if not everyone can access online information. In terms of advocacy, discussants believed that libraries should be the advocates and should join hands with other organizations such as churches and community centers in order to provide better access to the masses, especially in rural areas of the Southern and Central Appalachian belt.


The findings in this research provide qualitative feedback and anecdotal evidence that there is unevenness in community access to broadband services in Tennessee in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Participants suggested that this unevenness in access leads to, and often amplifies, disparities in access to workforce related to educational opportunities and small business development opportunities. Aside from providing access and training, research participants suggested that libraries can play a major role as advocates to those without Internet access and that libraries can help secure better connectivity in their communities by working collaboratively with government agencies, community organizations, and other public, private, and not-for-profit service providers. The FCC’s Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan mentions libraries in the context of providing digital literacy that leads to broadband adoption and use and the report even notes that “community based organizations, such as libraries and non-profits, are key institutions in underserved and non-adopting communities…While the challenges and opportunities they face vary, these libraries and other community partners are critical to improving digital proficiency in communities” (p. 196). The FCC report however, makes only a fleeting mention of the role that libraries play in economic, workforce and small business development by providing broadband access and training to their communities. The recommendations by the FCC for economic development rely heavily on investments in other agencies such as the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA), but not in public libraries (or any other libraries for that matter). This is problematic since libraries have access to their patrons at the ground-zero level and highlights a need for more vocal advocacy and for more visibility by libraries as a proponent of workforce education and small business development, based on what our research participants suggested. Future work will address these concerns in extending systematic methods of data-collection to deepen the knowledge base about broadband, libraries and economic development.


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