Advocates of fiber know the importance of connectivity to the business and to the home. But for other types of spaces—specifically, anchor institutions that include libraries, schools and health institutions, to name a few—internet access has become more and more critical.
On this week’s Fiber for Breakfast live video series, three experts involved with anchor institutions discussed the increasing need for reliable internet at these sites. The pandemic shows how gaps in connectivity leave many people in the dark.
“Sometimes our sector gets overlooked,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. “The traditional industry often divides the world between industry and residential, but anchor institutions are an important part of the community. There needs to be more of a focus on the needs of anchor institutions, particularly because of this pandemic.”
Anchor institutions are essential parts to a community’s identity. But for many of these institutions—like schools and libraries—funding for and access to high speed internet is lacking. In 2014, the FCC updated it’s E-Rate program, which provides funding to schools, school districts and libraries to obtain broadband. This modernization provided more funding and removed some previous caps that made the program somewhat restrictive in terms of choice.
But as connectivity needs continue to change—especially in light of schools closing due to COVID-19—the current capacity just isn’t enough. Bob Bocher, senior fellow at the American Library Association, pointed to the amount of people who rely on libraries for internet access because they don’t have it at home. Many libraries were forced to close their doors in the early days of the pandemic, but people still flocked to library parking lots to continue working and learning.
“The majority of the internet use in a library used to be from wired lines,” said Bocher. “Now we have patrons coming in with their laptops and devices, and they’re connecting to the WiFi. The amount of bandwidth used by the WiFi is more than the wired line.”
Those working with anchor institutions are concerned that as bandwidth needs increase, the current model of building and funding networks won’t be able to keep up. This could leave already struggling institutions with poor or no internet access, which can hurt some of the most vulnerable people. While schools are a huge part of anchor institutions, Windhausen said they also include prisons, public housing and health care clinics.
“These are aggregation points,” he said. “If you have a lot of people living or working in a central location that needs big bandwidth. There are some challenges, largely due to the cost. You need to have a service that is affordable.”
For some communities, anchor institutions have banded together to work within their own networks. The Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, an education service agency dedicated to delivering services to school districts in Pennsylvania, built a network that connects 29 schools with dark fiber. The network was built out 25 years ago with just 4 mbps, and has since grown to 20 gigs that serve up to 90,000 students.
Roy Hoover, network and telecommunications coordinator at Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, said being thoughtful about what capacity is needed now versus what might be needed in the future has been extremely beneficial.
“Our typical approach has been to monitor the usage on the network, and when the time comes to release an RFP, we make projections about what our internet growth is going to look like,” he said. “We’re trying to predict traffic on the network over a six year window, which can be difficult.”
He said it’s important for anchor institutions to look at what the needs are and how their consumers are using broadband. At schools, for instance, many students receive an individual device from the district. These run on the schools network even at home with VPNs. Whether or not a student is physically inside the school, if they’re using a school-issued device that connects to a school’s private network, that capacity need will be there.
Fiber has been essential in keeping up with these demands. A dark fiber network allows Hoover and his team to update the network quickly when they need more capacity. During times like these, having the flexibility is essential. Without fiber, anchor institutions won’t be able to function in a way that serves their individual populations.
“Everything starts with fiber to these anchor institutions,” Hoover said. “No matter what happens, we need to have flexibility in how we deploy those services.”
Join us for our next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Aug. 19 at 10 a.m. ET. The topic: Fiber: An Essential Facet of the Connected Community – A WIA Report